In Praise of Newspapers

I read newspapers every day. In hard copy. In all their inky glory. I even read them when I’m on holidays. They offer a window onto my own society and culture, and that of others.

Cultivating a reading habit

The Age masthead (2018)

Reading the paper is a habit formed in my youth. Dad was a voracious reader of political news and, let’s be honest, any news relating to the Carlton Football Club. (Rest in peace, dad. Good times will come again.) Our breakfast tablecloth regularly disappeared under the sprawling broadsheet pages of the Melbourne Age. It was the era of Menzies and Bolte, of the Vietnam War and moratorium marches, and – to save us from utter despair – Carlton’s ascendancy.

When I left home to go to university, I immediately arranged a newspaper delivery to my residential college. If Canberra Airport was fog-bound on a winter’s morning, and the interstate papers couldn’t arrive by air, breakfast became a disappointing start to the day. Later still, when I moved to a tiny rural town in New South Wales, my request to have the Age delivered to the general store was met with equal measures of incomprehension and suspicion. (They were right to be suspicious.)

And so it continues…

Jump forward a few decades. I still subscribe to a capital city daily – now it’s The Canberra Times. In recent years,  this stablemate of The Age has turned from broadsheet to tabloid format and it’s no longer possible to split the main news section from the sports section so two people can conveniently read at once. That’s a frustration. My solution is to keep the whole paper for myself and not share it at all. At weekends, I sometimes treat myself to The Australian, a national broadsheet that has several separate sections (oh, joy!), as well as a glossy magazine that keeps me in ‘idle-hours’ reading all week long.

My commitment to reading the paper on a daily basis remains unchanged even when I’m on holidays. On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, I generally purchased The Guardian at some point during the day or, failing that, I snaffled a copy of one of the free dailies available on the London Underground. (As an aside, the reading of these gratis newspapers prompted the only rail-carriage conversations I witnessed. For the most part, travel was conducted in eyes-downcast silence, within private cocoons of ear buds and electronic devices.)

A window onto a culture

A newspaper provides a window onto a culture. It shines a light on what is important, and of interest, to a people. In the UK during my visit, Brexit machinations were trumped only by England’s World Cup heroics. (If you doubt my ‘heroics’ tag, you simply weren’t there.) Politics and sport. UK/Australia. Same/same. But … not quite.

While there are plenty of similarities between the cultures of Britain and Australia – the seeding of Empire in the Great South Land saw to that – there are differences, too.

Take the Guardian issue I bought on my first day in London. Filling page three was a review of a newly opened exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. A whole page given over to art, without even a single advertisement. I am old enough to remember when page three of a tabloid was reserved for shapely women in various states of undress. (Perhaps there are still papers like that, I wouldn’t know.) I have never seen a focus on a museum or gallery exhibition, comparable to that in The Guardian, in an Australian newspaper. Like Dorothy, I had a feeling I was not in Kansas anymore.

The Saturday Guardian revealed another cultural discrepancy. In the ‘Weekend’ section, I came upon a crossword. It was simply headed ‘Crossword by Sy’. Now, despite the best efforts of intelligent friends, I am entirely bamboozled by cryptic crosswords, but I do enjoy completing a daily ‘quick’ crossword. Of which variety would Sy’s be?

Opening clue, 7 and 11 across: ‘In what was Keats much travelled before looking into Chapman’s Homer? (6,2,4)’. I have no idea. The next batch of clues defeat me, also. I am about to give up when I read 16 across: ‘… Jones, Covent Garden architect (5)’. Ooh, I know this one. (If in doubt, when it comes to a question of construction in the UK, try Isambard Kingdom Brunel or Inigo Jones. You’ll be right  80% of the time.) I get to 21 across: ‘Where, according to Coleridge, Kubla Khan decreed his pleasure dome (6). I’m on a roll now. (Thank you, Olivia Newton John.)

I eventually completed Sy’s crossword, but only because the answers were given on a separate page. I cheated and looked them up.

The crossword included clues about the works of Shelley and Bryon and Rossetti and ee cummings. No Australian paper I’ve read has featured a crossword based on the English literary canon, let alone one centred on Malouf and Winton and Oodgeroo and Garner.

I was clearly a long way from my usual cultural milieu.

As the holiday spooled forward, and I continued to take my daily dose of print news, I often turned to the Guardian’s ‘Country Diary’, a natural history column. There I read, for example, about the tumps that populate the hillside near Kirkham Abbey in North Yorkshire. I hadn’t the slightest notion what a tump was – the word doesn’t even appear in my Australian Macquarie Dictionary. (In case you ever need to know, a tump is a little hillock, often home to moles or ants.) Again, there is no similar column that I’ve come across in an Australian newspaper. (I, for one, would read a regular piece about the ‘wide brown land’ in which I live.)

What’s the point of hard copy newspapers?

As I write, Fairfax Media, one of Australia’s longest-running newspaper organisations, is merging (subject to the required approvals) with an entertainment conglomerate. Fairfax publishes both the newspaper I cut my teeth on (The Age) and the one I subscribe to now (The Canberra Times). I want to keep reading a print paper. In turning the pages, I often pause to read articles I would never seek out online from their ‘clickbait’ headings. (Heavens, I sometimes even read columns in the business and finance sections as I turn the newsprint pages en route to the sport.)

I read more broadly and diversely in print. Although the papers I choose may reflect a particular ideological stance, they are well-rounded to the extent that they cover manifold aspects of life. As a consequence, I hope I am more well-rounded in my understanding and appreciation of the world. And when I travel, I hope to continue buying print newspapers for the insight they offer into lives other than my own.

Links and sources

Guardian mastheads, courtesy of the Guardian (UK)

The Appeal of Series Fiction – It All Begins in Childhood

I enjoy series fiction. Mostly crime series, it must be said. Whether it’s Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk trudging across the landscape in contemporary Australia, or Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy cruising the streets of Belfast during ‘The Troubles’, or C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake plying his legal trade on the equally dangerous streets of 16th century London, I’m there with them – book after book after book.

What is the appeal of series fiction? I have a hunch that, for me, it goes back to the series I devoured as a child. I grew up on a diet of Amelia Jane and the Bobbsey Twins before graduating to Pippi Longstocking and the Silver Brumby. (My persistent bristling at being told what to do can surely be laid at the feet of Astrid Lindgren and Elyne Mitchell.)

Series fiction, whether for children or older readers, is often dismissed as a lesser form of writing, just one peg above ‘pulp’ fiction (which also often runs in series, thereby being slammed with a double dose of snobbish disdain). Series fiction is reviewed less often and with less analytical rigour than standalone titles. A quick search of the Australian literature database, AustLit, reveals just 11 critical articles about series, and only a couple of dozen shorter newspaper columns on the same subject.

But even if the academy largely ignores series, publishers and readers don’t. Dipping into AustLit again, I find records for over 1,100 book series published in Australia since 2010. If publishers are accepting proposals for series in such large numbers, and taking them through the not inexpensive editing, publishing and distribution process, they must recognise a market for sales. Why are readers buying these books?

Why so popular?

Let’s go back again to children’s series. How many Australians, growing up in the middle decades of the 20th century, read Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books or P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins titles? Perhaps they were fans of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five or favoured the American Stratemeyer Syndicate’s Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Maybe it was English translations of Asterix and Tintin that drew them in. Later in the century, along came the Baby-Sitters Club, Diary of Wimpy Kid and Goosebumps.

Cover images courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia

And just before the new millennium ticked over, Harry Potter turned up. His wizarding journey was published between 1997 and 2007. Has any other series generated the rapturous response afforded to the Hogwarts cohort?

UK academic and children’s literature specialist Victor Watson believes that reading series fiction ‘is not just an obsessive eccentricity’. It is, rather, central to our discovery of ‘the most important reading secret of all – that fiction can provide a complex variety of profoundly private pleasures, and that these pleasures are repeatable and entirely within the reader’s control’. We become friends, as Sydney-based teacher, editor and author Judith Ridge puts it, with characters who remain ‘reassuringly themselves from book to book’.

Transitioning from child reader to adult reader

And perhaps that is at the heart of why I still read series, both those written for adults and those intended for younger audiences. It is a private, repeatable pleasure in the reassuring company of familiar characters.

Cover image courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia

For children and adults alike, a book series creates a sense of connection – between author and reader, and between reader and character. Alongside the heartening familiarity is the buzz of expectation. In C. J. Sansom’s series, Matthew Shardlake has, so far, doggedly survived the rule of Henry VIII, and outlived both Cromwell and Cranmer. Now he faces new challenges under Elizabeth I’s reign. A book series couples predictability with anticipation.

There is also an element of control in reading a series. Young children might be facing upheavals and anxieties at home and school, they could be glimpsing uncertainties in the world at large. Within the pages of a book series, they can return again and again to a place of security. There is comfort in ‘the assurance that any problems that arise will be resolved in a satisfactory way’ (Ward and Young, ‘Engaging Readers through Series Books’). Is it so different for adult readers? I think not. Sean Duffy survives the bombs of the IRA and the machinations of the FBI in Adrian McKinty’s series. And Aaron Falk, despite his troubled and somewhat dysfunctional personal life, manages to apply his policing skills with insight and efficiency in Jane Harper’s series.

Cover image courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia

The distance between Pippi Longstocking and Sean Duffy is really not so far. I still enjoy the warm blanket of series fiction in a sometimes chilling world. And in case you’re wondering whether I’m excited that the seventh book in C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series and the third in Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series are being published in October 2018 – you bet I am!

Share a Favourite

If you have memories of a favourite series that fostered your reading life, or if you’d like to recommend a series, please add your thoughts in a comment.

Links to series

Here are some of my favourite series from recent years. The list is alphabetical by author. Some of the series are suitable for children (*), some are for adult readers – all are cracking good yarns.

Image courtesy of Hachette Australia

Image courtesy of Goodreads

Other sources

  • AustLit: ‘an authoritative database about Australian literature and storytelling, with biographical and bibliographical information, full text, exhibitions and rich online content’.
  • For more about the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its many series (including the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) visit the site ‘dedicated to the legacy of Edward Stratemeyer’.
  • Watson, Victor. Reading Series Fiction: From Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp. London: Routledge Falmer, 2000.
  • Ridge, Judith, et al. ‘Series Fiction.’ Magpies: Talking about Books for Children 18.5 (2003): 10-12.
  • Ward, Barbara A., and A. Terrell Young. ‘What’s New in Children’s Literature?: Engaging Readers through Series Books.’ Reading Horizons. 48.1 (2007): 71-80.