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Meet Our Keynote Speaker: Catherine Sheldrick Ross

Conference Co-coordinator, Emily Woster, interviews one of the Keynote Speakers for the L.M. Montgomery and Reading Conference, Catherine Sheldrick Ross. 

Catherine Sheldrick Ross​ is Professor Emerita and former Dean of the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) at Western University. With a longstanding research interest in leisure reading, she has published scholarly articles and books on various aspects of the pleasure-reading experience. She has over 300 open-ended interviews in which avid readers talk about the role of reading in their lives, factors that fostered or discouraged reading in childhood, books that have made a significant difference, rereading, and characters in books who become "friends" such as Emily, Anne, and Jane. She has just completed a co-authored book, ​Reading Still Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries, and Community​ (Libraries Unlimited, 2018). Other recent books include: ​The Pleasures of Reading: A Booklover's Alphabet​ (Libraries Unlimited 2014) and and a nonfiction book for children, ​Shapes in Math, Science and Nature: Squares, Triangles and Circles​ (Kids Can Press 2014). In 2013, she received the Margaret E. Munroe Award given by the American Library Association for “significant contributions to library adult services.”

Dr. Ross answered a few questions about her work via email.

Emily Woster (EW):You presented at the first LMMI conference in 1994. Can you share a bit of what you presented then? (How it might inform what you’re doing now? How your work has changed?)

Catherine Sheldrick Ross (CSR):At the 1994 conference, I examined the contrast between two very different bestsellers, written within a few years of each other: Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) and L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables(1908). The case that I made then was that both these stories continue to be popular because the stories their authors needed to tell coincide with stories that a great many readers need to hear—in Montgomery’s case, stories of belonging and of finding home. In that paper, I drew on the voices of real readers, interviewed by me and by my students. In response to an open question that asked avid readers to recall their reading experience starting from the first thing they can remember, quite a few interviewees mentioned LMM books as works that were important to them as children and often reread as adults. Since then I have continued my research with pleasure readers, interested in understanding the reading experience from the perspective of the individual reader. For the 2018 conference, I have conducted interviews with avid LMM readers that focus entirely on their experiences reading and rereading Montgomery.

 

EW:What was that 1994 conference like?

 

CSR:Great! This inaugural conference drew together a some superb LMM scholars from around the world.

 

EW:Where and when did you first read Montgomery?

 

CSR:When I was seven, I accompanied my family on a trip to PEI, where of course we visited Green Gables and its gift shop. My aunt bought me a hard cover copy of Anne of Green Gables(which I still have) and which was first read aloud to me. Later I read AGG—and the sequels and almost all the others including The Blue Castle—on my own over a period of years, especially during summers at the cottage in New Brunswick on the Saint John River.

 

EW:Based on your research into reading communities and the role of pleasure reading, why do you think people read and re-read Montgomery over a lifetime? What is it about her texts that seem to invite rereading?

 

CSR:There’s a number of factors that converge here. Readers have told me that they most often come to LMM books as children, often introduced to them by a family member or given the books as gifts. If the reader enjoys the first book of a series such as the Anne books or the Emily books, they want to repeat the enjoyable experience by reading the rest of the series. One avid reader Scarlett recalled that her father video-recorded the Kevin Sullivan CBC telemovie for her when she was in grade three and she watched it “over and over and over and over.” Then when she “found out that there were books, it was kind of a mind-blowing, door-opening for me. All of a sudden there were all of these books I could read that were considered appropriate for me, but that also dealt with adult themes. I felt mature. I felt sort of special reading them.” Readers choose to reread the books because they want to reexperience that special LMM world and reencounter Anne or Emily or Jane, whom they often describe as “friends.” Scarlett told me that when she reread a Montgomery book as an older, she experienced the books “in a whole new light,” paying attention to characters and elements in the books that “didn’t have my attention the first time because I was focusing on Anne.” She explained that rereading was a way of recovering her earlier selves: “It’s not just seeing the book as you saw it as a child versus how you see it as an adult. It’s seeing yourselfas a child and yourselfas an adult. And that contrast has a therapeutic function.”

 

EW:What kinds of things have readers told you about Montgomery or her works? Why are Anne and Emily listed as favorites over and over again?

 

CSR:In my talk in 2018, I plan to say quite a bit about what readers have told me about reading LMM. And it’s not just Anne and Emily; it’s also Jane and Valancy.

 

EW:Past LMMI conferences have focused on popular and Canadian culture, war, conflict, nature, the idea of ‘classic,’ etc. Why do you think Montgomery’s works invite so many topics or encourage so much interdisciplinarity?

 

CSR:Many works that were huge bestsellers in their day—think of the novels of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth—are unreadable now, and largely unstudied, because they speak to concerns that are no longer meaningful to readers. At the core of Montgomery’s work is a theme that is universal with a strong appeal to readers: the young person who, though initially undervalued and unrecognized, is important to herself and prevails. Quite often younger readers come to the novels attracted by the coming-of-age theme, but when they reread, as they so often do, other well-defined characters and themes come into focus that invite further reflection and exploration: social conditions, family relations, and the roles and options open or closed to women; the natural world and urbanization; writing and the literary life; the homefront of Canada at war; and so on. The publication of the Selected Journalshas played a key role. Taken together, the Journalsprovide an unparalleled record of Canadian life over fifty years as recorded by an extremely perceptive observer. The availability of the journals has given momentum to interdisciplinary approaches to LMM’s life and work, as viewed through the various lenses of literature, life writing, sociology, psychology, neurobiology, and pharmacology.

 

EW:How do you think literacy and library scholars approach Montgomery differently than literary scholars? Why is that perspective so important to the study of her work?

 

CSR:When you consider readers and texts, it’s like Jacob wresting with the angel. Both text and reader are crucial, but sometimes one gets the upper hand and sometimes the other. Literary critics typically give precedence to the text—themes, patterns of imagery, rhetorical devices, narrative methods, and so on—in order to produce insightful interpretations. When literary critics talk about readers, usually they mean implied readers whose responses are deduced from examining the texts. Literacy and library scholars, on the other hand, give more weight to living-and-breathing, empirical readers and how those readers actually read and enjoy (or reject) texts. Unlike, say, James Joyce’s later work, Montgomery’s work is a rich field for this reader-based emphasis because there have been so many ordinary readers who have read and reread her books, can remember vividly their reading experience, and can talk about that experience eloquently. 

 

EW:And finally, what is your favorite LMM text? Which one was your favorite as a child vs. now?

 

CSR:I initially read the LMM books over a period of years, starting at age seven with the Anne books, going on to the Emily books, and not reading The Blue Castleor The Tangled Webor Rilla of Inglesideuntil early adolescence. They were all favorites while I was reading them. More recently I have been a big fan of the Journals.

 

EW:What do you most look forward to at the conference?

 

CSR:Getting a chance to meet and talk to other conference presenters and LMM scholars.

 

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Dr. Ross will be speaking on Sunday June 24th on“LMM and the Paradox of the Reading Experience”

 

Abstract: 

I conduct ethnographic research with adult readers who read for pleasure and at last count had over 300 open-ended interviews with avid readers. In these interviews, readers reflect on such topics as factors that fostered reading in childhood, how they choose books to suit a mood, genres that they prefer or avoid, how they feel about rereading books, the role of reading in their life, and books that have made a big difference to them in one way or another and why. I will share some of my discoveries about the reading experience itself, focusing on the experience of real readers who read L.M. Montgomery. In particular, I consider why so many children and adults read (and reread) LMM and what various roles these books have in the lives of the readers, including readers who become writers. Reading researchers and critics often denigrate “reading for escape” as a reading practice and “escapist reading” as a low-status genre, declaring that they waste time that could be better spent confronting life. However when we examine the role of reading for escape within the context of the lives of actual readers, we get a more nuanced picture in which reading for escape—either “escape-from” or escape-to” reading—is reading for

connection.