Tag Archives: reading

Last Day of 2019

It’s the last day of 2019, the last day of the year and (depending on your counting system, possibly) the last day of the decade. I haven’t been blogging as regularly over the last few months – my energy has been taken up elsewhere – but it seems like as good a time as any for a quick review of the year, the last ten years, and some thoughts about what’s coming in 2020. I’m going to split my review into four themes: reading, writing, teaching, and personal.

Reading

In the last decade, I’ve read a lot. I’ve always read a lot, but what I read has shifted over that time. It was probably about ten years ago that I got a kindle for the first time, and that opened up two worlds for me: downloading fanfiction from AO3 (rather than reading it on my laptop), and buying cheap ebooks from Amazon. The latter especially has been a big shift in the publishing market and probably affects the next section, too, because when it’s easier to self-publish or to run a small press, because it’s easier to create and sell ebook-only editions, it becomes possible to cater to niche audiences (like people who want to read LGBTQ+ romances) in a way which was previously… well, which was previously happening mainly in fanfic.

I’ve also made extensive use of libraries, second-hand bookshops, and new bookshops throughout that time. The horrified book-shop running friend who almost refused to speak to me after seeing my ebook reader can relax: as far as I can tell, being able to read in more ways just means I read even more, it doesn’t mean I’m buying fewer physical books.

In 2014, I had a bookshelf full of ought-to-read-that books which I hadn’t had time for, and to encourage me to get through them I started tracking my to-read and read numbers. In 2017 I moved my record keeping into the public domain on Goodreads. These two things mean that I can now offer you a graph of my reading habits and a link to find out what all those books were. Mainly due to taking twelve weeks of study leave (see also the next section), I have read 257 books this year.

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Graph of number of books read, by month, since 2014, with an average line and some notes about events during that time.

Writing

Some writing which I began long ago came to fruition in 2019 as two of my books were published. Telling the Truth about God, based on my earlier academic book British Quakers and Religious Language, which in turned was based on my PhD thesis, came out in 2019 and we held a book launch at CLC in Birmingham.

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With the bookshop manager at CLC at the launch of ‘Telling the Truth about God’.

I also began January 2019 asking questions about this novel manuscript I’d accidentally written in some spare time. (No, really, I had a gap between other books and wanted to maintain a writing habit… it isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened to me, just the first time I’ve had something good enough to show other people at the end.) Manifold Press picked it up and it was published in the summer of 2019: Between Boat and Shore. In a genre which clearly exists, and seems extensive for those in it, but is small enough that people outside laugh and think I’m joking when I call it a genre, this is probably one of those things which wouldn’t be possible without the internet.

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‘Between Boat and Shore’, a lesbian romance set in Neolithic Orkney, was published in 2019 by Manifold Press. It can be purchased from https://manifoldpress.co.uk/book/between-boat-and-shore/.

My main writing project in 2019, and the reason for my study leave, has been my next academic book – currently called Theology from Listening and due with my editor in January 2020. (One reason why I haven’t been blogging so much!)

Next year’s writing projects include a novel which I don’t really have spare time for, another Quaker Quicks book based on this year’s research, and who knows what else. Hopefully some blog posts and poems! I’m reducing my hours at Woodbrooke a bit to make room for more writing, so there will definitely be something. If you want to watch this space for news, why not sign up to get blog posts by email? (There’s a form in the sidebar on the right.)

Teaching

I did various forms of teaching in 2019. (Back in 2009 I was watching lots of my graduating classmates going into secondary school teaching and promising myself I’d never teach at all… universities and adult education are very different to schools! I’m still sure I couldn’t cope with that, and massive respect to everyone who does teach in schools.) I ‘m now co-supervising more research students, which is always interesting and one of my favourite jobs, and have been glad to be involved in various conferences, events for researchers, and academic processes like PhD vivas.

Five courses I taught for Woodbrooke stand out as highlights of 2019. Early in the year I co-taught a course called ‘The Changing Shape of Eldership and Oversight’ with Zélie Gross. We looked at the ways Quaker communities can provide spiritual and practical pastoral support, exploring a range of options and how things are changing in general. Some of this is about the wider changes in the Quaker community – more smaller meetings, for example – and some about changes in society as a whole – like the fact that there are fewer people retiring with time and energy to spare for voluntary work.

Directly relevant to this blog, Gil Skidmore and I ran a course called ‘Spiritual Blogging’. We looked at the Quaker tradition of spiritual journals and how that might relate to modern ways of communicating. We identified some differences but also lots of interesting similarities and cross-cutting themes, like issues around editing your life, choosing what to say and what to keep to yourself.  Ben Wood and I collaborated on a course called ‘Truth is What Works’, in which Ben brought a whole load of interesting philosophy and we spent time as a group playing with those ideas.

I taught a full online course on my own for the first time. In ‘Multiple Religious Belonging’, course participants explored their many complex experiences of religion and read (or watched videos) about different perspectives of, and opinions on, situations where one person might be participating in more than one religious tradition or community. And right at the end of the year, Jon Martin and I worked together on a course called ‘Speaking to That of God’, which was about finding new audiences and building Quaker presences online. This is something that I’ve worked on in various ways over the years, but usually for myself and my own purposes – to network with people, to get new perspectives, to form different communities within the wider Quaker world, to learn, to share ideas and practice writing – rather than on behalf of a meeting. I learned a lot from our participants and their questions, and sharpened up some of my own thoughts about what is or isn’t possible or desirable online.

In 2020 I’ll be continuing to work on some of these topics – search Woodbrooke’s online brochure or order a paper copy if you’re interested.

Personal

Outside work, I continued to settle in to living in Birmingham. I visited Belfast twice to spend time with my partner, who’s studying there, and she came to Birmingham several times as well. We went on holiday in the Republic of Ireland with my parents, and had a good time including seeing puffins and stone circles.

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By the shore of an Irish lake, my parents pose for my partner’s camera – she’s standing with her back to me while I take a picture of the photographer at work. 😀

Having resigned at the end of 2018 after volunteering with GirlgudingUK for over a decade, because of their partnership with the armed forces, and stepped back from some other tasks, I started 2019 without much by way of voluntary work. During the year, the Book of Discipline Revision Committee started our work, and I got involved with the Society of Authors including starting a local branch. I kept up my allotment, having some successes (tomatillos, cherry tomatoes, raspberries, broad beans, a couple of good squashes), and some failures (lettuce seeds that never germinated, leeks which… went weird?, some seedlings I thought I’d sown which turned out to be weeds!).

In 2020, my main aim is to let things in my life happen as they happen. I want to enjoy the opportunities I have – some funding to keep writing, an exciting holiday, a big work trip, potential new directions for my research, and all the usual hopes allotment holders have in spring – and I’m not setting big or dramatic goals. I’m aware that’s the opposite of what I want to see in the world (governments setting ambitious targets for fossil fuel reduction, electoral reform, a welcoming rather than a hostile environment, etc.), but I also need to give myself some space. The last few months have been very crowded with stuff, and seeds (mostly metaphorical but also literal!) which have been planted need time to grow.

Reading: January

During January, I read 20 books. You can find the details of all of them on my Goodreads account, but I thought it might be interesting to share some general observations about them. Later in the year, as I get further into my research project, I might write more detailed reviews of my reading as a way to share my research, but for January something broader seems in order.

Four books were related to my research work on liberal Quaker theology. Walk Humbly, Serve Boldly and Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order actually have a lot in common – one newer and one older, one more convergent and one firmly in the conservative tradition, but both explorations of Quaker practice and its underlying theology. The Promise of Paradox is more generally Christian, while also having clear Quaker roots, and God the Trickster? is at once both a typical liberal Quaker anthology (the anthology format is characteristic of the need to incorporate a range of views), but at the same time unapologetically only represents one strand of Quaker experience.

I read nine novels and one graphic novel. Some of these had been sitting on my shelf or my reading list for a while – I bought Black Panther #1 and read it almost straight away, but it had been on my ‘to obtain’ list for two years. Others were suggested to me – I owned a copy of Decline and Fall anyway, and re-read it after maybe fifteen years to discuss it with a book club. (Interesting that I’d kept it, actually, since I rarely re-read things and tend to pass novels on after a year or two.) One, All the Conspirators, was a good read but had been sent to me by mistake when I tried to order another book by Isherwood!

I also read six non-fiction books not directly related to my research. Ireland: a Short History is probably heavier than most people require as holiday preparation, but was very readable for a textbook and certainly succeeded in filling me in on the background. Living a Feminist Life had been on my reading list for a while and had lots of helpful insights, while Queer City, which I’d also been thinking of reading for some time, turned out not to be worth it at all. I made up for that disappointment with a different and excellent biography, Scanty Particulars: the Life of Dr James Barry.

There are other ways to divide up books, of course. There’s author identity, for example: of those 20 books, 9 were by women, 10 by men, and one an anthology. As far as I know, none of the authors were trans (although gender complexity is a major feature of the biography of James Barry). I think that all but three of the authors were white. Similarly, to the best of my knowledge all but three of the authors were straight.

Or there’s format: I read five of the books on my Kindle, and the rest on paper (14 paperbacks and one hardback). Two, a graphic novel and a history through old photographs, were heavily illustrated, while the rest were mainly text.

Or method of obtaining them: one through a book club/circulating library, four from Woodbrooke’s library, three from the Library of Birmingham, one from the University of Birmingham library, three picked up in second-hand shops, one ordered second-hand online, and one sent by accident when I ordered something else. Apart from the five Kindle books, only the graphic novel was purchased new, for which I should probably apologise to my author friends. 🙂

Review of 2018

2018, overall, has been a good year for me. It started in my new flat, which (although it still needs some work – doesn’t everything?) suits me very well. It included meeting great people (new collaborators, new students, new partner!), and maintaining connections with old friends. I took the Eurostar to Cologne and the ferry to Belfast for the first time. I caught up with, and worked with, people all over the world, without leaving my living room. I think that epitomises my response to the wider political situation: to try, using Skype, Zoom, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other amazing tools the internet affords us, to create stronger international links without adding unnecessarily to my carbon footprint.

It’s been a good year for writing. I had a book come out (the expensive university library one), a book accepted for publication (Telling the Truth about God will be out next year at a much more reasonable price), and I have almost completed a draft novel manuscript. I haven’t blogged as much in 2018; this is only post number 20, although I’ve had almost the same number of views (almost 4000) as in 2017 and 2016. I set out to see how many poems I could get rejected from magazines, and managed 30 (and got a few published, in A New Ulster and Poethead). I had some academic journal articles appear, including one on afterwords and one on multiple religious belonging.

Other opportunities have opened up. I’ve been enjoying editing a special edition of Religions on interdisciplinary Quaker Studies (5 articles published and some more to come), and in 2019 I’m looking forward to working on The Quaker World with Wess Daniels. (Chapter proposals are open! Tell us what you’d like to write about!)

I read a lot of books (as those who follow me on Goodreads will know). That many books always includes a few duds or things which just weren’t to my taste, but it also includes so many excellent books it’s hard to pick out just a few. Some people I know personally published great books this year, so naturally I’m biased towards those (examples include: Quaker Studies: an Overview, Our Child of the Stars, Sing for the Coming of the Longest Night). Of the other fiction I read this year, I really liked The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (and the other two books in the series), and was passed Hag-Seed by a friend who was right that it’s a fascinating read. I also enjoyed Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, No Man of Woman Born, The Tea Master and the Detective, and Unfit to Print. In non-fiction (well, excluding work stuff… I’ll probably be writing more about that next year), favourites included Balancing on the Mechitza, Doughnut Economics, The Prodigal Tongue, Saving Alex, and So You Want To Talk About Race.

Besides writing and reading – although, frankly, those are my favourite activities – I’ve also done some other things. I co-taught a course on Friends with Dual Religious Identities which led to some really productive conversations, and ran a small course at Swarthmoor Hall on Afterwords which also went well. I enjoyed a family holiday on Orkney (which inspired some aspects of the draft novel…) and a course on Writing Our Roots (which lead to some good poem drafts)… okay, correction, I don’t really do anything which isn’t about reading or writing in some way. 😀 Even Britain Yearly Meeting was this year much concerned with books – deciding whether to revise our book of discipline. It was a big event for me personally, too, because of my service on the Revision Preparation Group, a committee who became real friends during our work.

In 2019 I’m planning new challenges – new courses to teach, conferences to attend, books to write, study leave to take (and use as well as possible!), and of course lots to read. And my first book launch. Watch this space for details!

Reading Qf&p 16 & 22: uses of the Big Red Book

Chapter 16, on Quaker marriage procedure, and Chapter 22, on Close relationships, are classic examples of a divide often – although perhaps not always usefully – drawn between parts of Quaker faith & practice. 16 is Church government. It tells you what to do. It has legal implications and it lays on meetings and individuals certain duties. 22 is inspiration or anthology. It’s extracts from people’s writing, some written specifically for this book. It’s personal. It doesn’t tell you what to do.

A friend of mine asked in a discussion what chapter 22 is used for. Who would read it? When? I can think of three situations in which I use chapter 22 and others like it, and I’d like to describe them here.

What do Quakers say about…? If I’m teaching about Quakers, or am asked by an enquirer or new attender, I might generalise in my own words, but I also turn to the book of discipline to give me quotations which support my points and sometimes to remind me of the diversity and direction of what is said. It usually turns out to be an application of a broader Quaker principle, but the extracts allow me to give examples of how this works.

Inspire us about… This is an internal Quaker use, but often similar to be previous one. We are holding a discussion about a specific topic, and I look in the book of discipline for an extract to read aloud at the beginning, or a few extracts to illustrate diversity or different approaches. I haven’t done this, but I think I might take this approach among others if asked to prepare ministry for something.

Help me. I have turned to Chapter 22, among others, when struggling with a problem in life. It can help me to be reminded that other people also face these difficulties – although it doesn’t always work, not least because some of my struggles are not reflected there. (For example: the job market has changed since 1994. So have attitudes to gender and sexuality.) It has sometimes helped me to think differently about a situation; I often need to be reminded to be patient with, and act lovingly towards, people in my Meeting (especially when they give me out-of-date or patronising job search advice, which happens a lot at the moment!). I can’t stand reading self-help books – they have so many tasks to do and good ideas that I get overwhelmed and feel even more inadequate than I did before, so a little bit of advice or someone’s personal story is much more accessible to me.

To be honest, I can remember trying to use Chapter 22 in Meeting for Worship in this way, and I think sometimes I did find the words useful, and sometimes I was simply settled by holding a book, looking at someone else’s words, and thereby starting to move away from an intense focus on a particular problem.

How do you use Chapter 22 and other ‘inspirational’ sections?

R is for Reading

Reading is on my mind as I prepare to teach a new group of undergraduates – in only a month! – including writing lecture slides of tips for succeeding at university. One of the things I remember being told when I began to study philosophy was that there was a lot to be gained from reading a text more than once – reading the whole way through to get the shape of the argument, and then again for bits I didn’t get the first time, and perhaps again for details after that. This goes against all my instincts, which are to read things once and then assume that – absent a long gap or a particular new slant – I don’t need to read anything again. That’s good enough for novels (although there are a handful which I have read more than once, or intend to read again one day). It works well enough for some philosophical texts – especially if I took good notes on the first pass, or if it turns out not to be as useful for the current project as I hoped it would be – but the advice to read again is sometimes sound. In particular, denser texts often benefit from two passes – one for shape and one for detail. It can be easy to get distracted by the detail and miss the shape if you don’t read this way.

Have you ever been to a big museum, or somewhere like a Sealife centre, where there are loads of fascinating things to look at but the overall pattern is hidden by the wealth of detail? I have a cousin who, especially in childhood, liked to hurry through such places on a first pass, getting the overall picture, and would then request to be taken back to specific exhibits which had been deemed worthy of further attention. This approach gives you a view which many people never get – I’ve been to the London Aquarium, but I looked at fish; I couldn’t draw you a map of the place, even though I gradually became aware that sometimes I was looking at the same fish again from a different angle.

This advice – read carefully, read twice – is coupled with another co-intuitive piece of advice which makes good sense in some contexts: don’t read too much. It’s tempting to try and read everything you can find on a subject when you’ve been asked to write an essay about it, but this doesn’t actually make good essays. Exactly how much you need to read does vary between topics – are you looking at facts, or opinions, or arguments, or theory, or a mixture? – but in general, something you’ve skim-read and referenced doesn’t add as much to an essay as something which you’ve read and thought about carefully. Going back to the aquarium metaphor, the more carefully you’ve looked at the fish in a particular tank and the longer you’ve spent with them, the more you’ll be able to tell me about them. You need to look at enough other tanks to be able to compare the fish and point out what is special about them, but after a certain point, looking at more tanks of sharks won’t improve your essay on seahorses.

tl;dr: reading is an important skill, and quality can be more important than quantity.