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Reading Between the Lines

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My memories of high school, they're a bit of a mixed bag, really. Aren't everybody's? But for me, I look back on my English lessons with great fondness. I'm not talking about the grammar, oh no. Life goes on, despite the odd split infinitive here and there. In fact, the Star Trek franchise positively thrived on it – "to boldly go" and all that. I mean literature, the classics, the modern stuff too. I'm talking about books.

There's nothing like a good book. As a child, I listened in awe to magical "once upon a time" fairy tales. But when I grew old enough to choose my own stories, I suddenly realised not every hero (or heroine) lived happily ever after. They laughed and they cried. They loved and they lost. They tried and they failed. With each book I read, I grew a little older and (I like to think) a little wiser.

Reading a short story, it's like enjoying a delicious snack. Big enough to give you a real taste, small enough to indulge at any time you like. But I hear you asking: what's the difference between short story reading and short story study? Well, in my case, about one hour of homework! That was the advice from group leader Martin Stone, before my visit to The Short Story Study Group.

Dubliners is a collection of short stories, based on middle-class life in early 20th century Ireland. Reading fifteen stories, and examining fifteen life-changing moments: an ambitious project for any group! For me, catching up on the first three 'instalments' was interesting and useful. The fourth story, Eveline, centred on a young woman's struggle between family duty and personal freedom. I won't say any more ... but if you changed the time and the place, this story line could easily appear in your favourite half-hour soap! Really? Really!

The Zoom session began on time, and it proceeded at a leisurely pace. First monthly meet of the year, so plenty of post-Christmas catching up going on. An unexpected but ideal opportunity, for me to get to know some members of this (currently all-ladies) literary group. The conversation quickly moved from mince pies to holiday reading. It was encouraging to learn that (for them) enjoying a good book was regarded as a lifestyle choice, rather than a once-a-month event. First good sign? Most definitely!

Martin provided a brilliant overview of the backdrop to Eveline. He picked out the major themes, and linked them to aspects of the author's life. Although I'd done my homework, Martin's opening comments helped me (and others, I'm sure) to better understand and appreciate the text to follow. Members volunteered to read a while, once the leader had kicked things off. The mood was animated at times, thoughtful mainly. But never so intense, that this newbie felt too self-conscious to join in. Second good sign? I'd say so!

We paused the reading at natural breaks in the plot. We pored over what the characters had said. We scrutinised what they had done. And we pondered about what it all meant. Some members were kind enough to share their personal research, including some valuable snippets from Google searches and book endnotes. I felt a real sense of working together, as we explored and created new interpretations of this wonderful little story. Triple whammy? You bet!

The session finished a bit early, and I reckon we left with more questions than when we started. And as I waved goodbye to the group (is that good or bad Zoom etiquette?), I couldn't help asking myself: would I read the rest of this collection? And the answer was, yes, I probably would.

But I hear you asking: now I've read a little of Dubliners, and I've studied a little of Dubliners, what do I make of it all? Well, I do believe James Joyce deserves a place amongst the great authors. But I don't believe that (oh dear, how can I put this) serious writers are only for serious readers, despite what my old high school teacher said. I believe every story can (and should) be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. At the end of the day, Joyce is simply a storyteller. And every storyteller is only as good as the next happy reader. That's where you come in.

So if you'd like to explore some modern themes in a more distant time and place, why not contact Martin Stone today – and add your voice to the next deliberations of The Short Story Study Group.

Teresa
(website editor)

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