I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework. Sounds like school, but this is adult education. We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.
My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together. It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its. The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages. You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.
As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy. The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.
Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion. ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean. Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.
You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?
Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.
The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation. Readers have to be active. I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.
We’re never sure where any story will take us. There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for. We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other. What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.
The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them. Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.
Where do these understandings come from? Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.
Isn’t that magical? Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection. It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.