Every so often, I come across a book that I not only love reading but that could have been about me. October's read is one of those.
It's always special to identify with the main character of a story and let your imagination run wild. Sometimes that same imagination can lead you to real life and make you reflect on what has or hasn't been — for me, The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman is one of those books.
The story is set in the '70s and tells the fictional story of Sarah Addleshaw, who is the first female "fellow" or senior academic at Oxford University, at a time when male colleges were just beginning to open their doors to women. The title refers to Oxford's "reading party" tradition — a select group of students going on a field trip to Cornwall during spring break for reading, revision and relaxation. Sarah is asked to accompany the group because for the first time female students are being allowed to join the reading party.
I was only a very young child in the '70s, when the events of this story are set, but it's easy to imagine the magnitude of a change like this. Many women, including my own mum, will remember living and working in the 70s and will relate to the story. Academic doors opened and women suddenly had more access to a world that had been male-dominated. The book, although fictional, seems to give an accurate image of what life would have been like and it brings the 70s atmosphere to life in a brilliant way.
I really enjoyed reading about the challenges Sarah had to overcome in both her professional and personal life because of these social changes. Some of the challenges I recognised from my own experience.
Most of all this book made me realise again how fortunate I am in my workplace and how much I enjoy my work. A quick glance through an historic timeline of libraries tells me there have been libraries since the third millennium BC. For thousands of years libraries were male-run places for reference, study and education. The timeline shows female librarians only came into existence in the early 1800s.
We have come a long way since then and it is interesting to think about how librarianship has evolved from being a job that was viewed as unsuitable and even dangerous for women to being a job that is suitable for anyone with a passion for books, reading and literacy, regardless of gender. And all the while it keeps going through my head… things could have been different for me if I was born in a different time. I could have been Sarah.