Debating the Book: Past, Present, Future

Launching ‘Life Lines’: A Discussion of Transcultural Adoption

What do Superman and Professor John McLeod have in common? No, it’s not that they’re from the planet Krypton or that they have super-strength, it’s that they are both adoptees. So it’s pretty fitting that John was asked to talk about Superman in light of his research on adoption at the launch of his new book, Life Lines: Writing Transcultural Adoption – an entertaining and informative hour of discussion between John and his old friend Matthew Pateman, another fellow adoptee and now Professor of Popular Aesthetics at Sheffield Hallam University. John was quick to reply that ‘the problem with Superman is that it’s all about exceptionality’ whereas his book actually subtly suggests that adoption is ordinary and common. An exhibition he mentioned entitled ‘‘Superman was a Foundling’’ highlighted just that, containing the names of hundreds of adoptees. So, he asked, why are many people fascinated with adoption?

It’s easy to see why John might be interested in the subject, but he pointed out that adoption is not just something which affects adoptees. Defining a key phrase in his book ‘Adoptive Being’, he explained that he was ‘trying to move from a preoccupation with being adopted to the possibilities of adoptive being’, acknowledging the often painful and traumatic experience of being adopted, whilst recognising that adoption can also be beneficial to everyone thinking about their own personhood. He argued that by looking at and writing about experience of adoption, other forms of knowledge and new ways of thinking might emerge – which, he said, was exactly what literary writing was about.

Talking about the title of the book he explained that in his writing he is trying to bring together two things. The first is the reality and representation of adoption and the second is his postcolonial background. Although he initially intended to write solely about postcolonial narratives of adoption, he found the term ‘transcultural’ to be more appropriate and flexible after reading more literature around the subject and considering that many cases were in America. As he also pointed out, not all transcultural adoptions are transnational or transracial, so this seemed like the most fitting and all-encompassing term.

The talk combined interesting theories and criticism about adoption with some very touching personal experience. This contrast between academic and personal interest was something John touched upon several times over the hour. He told us that whilst writing his book Postcolonial London, the stories of adoption he came across resonated with him and were part of the spark that pushed him to publish Life Lines. He initially struggled with incorporating personal experience into his work as he had always been told to remove himself from his research and simply answer ‘I find the literature fascinating’ when asked about his interest. To the audience’s amusement, he recounted that his typical answer didn’t go down so well at the adoption conventions he attended when writing Life Lines. He only earned an invitation to lunch when he revealed that he was in fact an adoptee himself.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the talk was the extract of John’s beautifully written coda. This, he explained, was how he dealt with combining literary analysis with personal experience. The section he read out focused on particular moments in his life when he has felt the impact of being adopted or adoptive being; when his teacher remarked that he resembled his sister (and he immediately began to question her intelligence) or when he saw the hatches unwanted babies were once deposited in at a nunnery. Fittingly, this personal ending to the book wrapped up the discussion and led on to a touching and personal thank you to those involved with the launch, especially Matthew, who John said was the only person he’d have wanted to do the event with.

After such a fascinating and moving talk I felt inspired to find out more about the subject, and Life Lines will definitely on my reading list for the future! The book is available for purchase here:

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Printing at Leeds: Why should we preserve the Small Press?

printing press

Coinciding with a project to renovate the print room in the School of English, this series of talks invited the audience to think about the history and legacy of printing at Leeds and the importance of preserving it. Introduced by Jim Mussell, the first session focused on the history of printing specifically at the university, particularly the development of Stand Magazine, a publication founded in 1952 and aimed at those interested in new books, literature and creative writing. The second session looked at some other examples of small printing presses including some newer companies working in the Leeds area.

We began by hearing from John Glover, a former student at Leeds, who took us through the history of Stand and his own involvement with the magazine. He framed the talk with his ideas about ‘Time’s Wrong-Way Telescope’ and the process of looking back at this period in his life with both distance and clarity. He reminisced about 144 Otley Road, the site of a home printing press where Stand and Northern House Pamphlet Poets began and where ‘the real work happened’. Here, several people involved in the project, including Jon Silkin, lived and worked and even had encounters with T.S Eliot, who often came to Headingley to visit relatives.

12168074_1087348441277691_1496781461_nNext we heard from John Barnard, who talked us specifically through the history of the print room in Leeds, beginning by asking the audience ‘why should there be a printing press at all?’. He explained his own background, having learnt how to print at Oxford University – a good way, he believed, for an editor to get to know how the things he worked with were made. When he moved to Leeds, he found the newly bought printing press was only really being used to complement Shakespeare lectures and felt students should be given the option to learn printing and incorporate it into other aspects of their studies. He recalled the problems that faced the press in the early 1980s as substantial cuts were made at the university and the use of computers for electronic printing became more widespread. With students and staff required to learn about computers in their course, it became harder and harder to find someone with enough experience to teach printing techniques.

Following on from this, John Whale gave us an insight into the life and work of Ken Smith, one of the first co-editors of Stand Magazine. Giving a sense of his personality through the often humorous letters exchanged by Ken and other writers/editors on the project, he also alluded to the anxiety of working at a small press and the catalogue of labour involved in being an editor. Like his colleagues, John Whale displayed both a passion for small-scale printing and for poetry, which the Northern Pamphlet Poets aimed to engage people with through their publications. As John Glover explained, there is often a separation between writing and poetry in Arts degrees that needs to be addressed.

After the break we heard from Luke Allan from Sine Wave Peak, a small press he has set up himself. The company was founded when Allan conveniently found a working A3 printer at the bottom of a stairwell and began to laboriously print and bind small handmade books, a task he now reflects upon as both a burden and pleasure. After a slightly disastrous studio share with a woman who made prosthetics and whose pungent chemical concoctions left traces on all of books he made, Allan has been inspired to start a new project. He’s now planning on ‘broadening the sensual experience of the books’ by leaving copies in a place significant to the author for a few works before. As he explained, ‘text is literary but a book is a sculpture’ highlighting the importance he places on the physical objects he produces.

Fiona Becket then took us through some of her research on Bob Cobbings, a visual poet and founder of the Writers Forum. She noted that the contributions of visual poetry to 21st Century poetics have not been universally acknowledged and highlighted the significance of the formative years of the Writers Forum, a model example of a truly democratic small press.  She believed that the continuation of the Forum after his death attested to its brilliance. She also brought in some interesting observations about the changes in technology in printing, such as the unique elements of using an ink duplicator, which meant each copy was subtly different, which was lost by the uniformity of the photocopier. Fiona praised the beauty of Cobbings’ scrappy and unique work and his generous nature, with an admirable desire to openly share his work with people rather than make a profit. She also suggested watching videos of his poetry being spoken on YouTube as she believes he would most want to be remembered as a sound poet, despite the equally impressive visual presentation of his work. As he said himself, ‘poetry is one of the arts that’s proper medium is the tape-recorder’.

Brian Lewis from Longbarrow Press spoke about the development of his own company which began when he managed to get away with printing from the unsupervised photocopiers and printers at his office. He talked us through some his collaborations with artist and writers to make his own unique publications, including Andrew Hirst and Matthew Clegg. One particularly memorable piece was a tiny match box edition of poems concertinaed on a single strip of paper inside a match box. He explained that this turned out to be ideal for slowing down the reading experience as each poem had its own space.

Finally Helen Mort finished up by talking about the significance of pamphlets, a form which many of today’s well known poets were first published in and which she compared to a ‘very tasty starter’. She drew our attention to the Tall Lighthouse Publishing House which, although not exclusively a pamphlet publisher, became best known for this format and is responsible for kick-starting the careers of many young poets. Helen Mort is currently judging the 2015 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets.

Which so much passion and determination to keep small presses going in a world dominated by big publishing houses, it’s clear that the restoration of the print room in the School of English is a worthwhile cause to support. For more information about Stand, the Northern House Pamphlet Poets and printing at Leeds, check out the page on the Leeds Library website:


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Is the door locked? Professor Francis O’Gorman’s thoughts on the literary and cultural foundations of worry

When I left my house on Thursday evening at at about 17.10 to undertake the just over ten minute walk to Blackwell’s, where Professor Francis O’Gorman’s talk started at 17.30, I worried I was going to be late. Why do we worry? Except looking as if I’m not punctual, nothing is going to happen if I am two minutes late for an event. The world won’t end, the sky won’t fall down. So why do we regularly worry so much?

This is what Francis O’Gorman has written his new book, Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History about. ‘Worry’ by both O’Gorman’s explanation and the OED’s definitions, changed from originally meaning ‘to strangle’ seen in text as early as 725, to today’s sense of anxiety. The verb worry with its current form is only recorded from 1822. In light of this we can see worrying as a fairly modern enigma, perhaps derived from superstition of the past but now used ‘worryingly’ frequently within society. We tend not to believe people if they say they don’t worry. We live in a worrisome world. All the words you can make out of the word worry surely prove this.

The everyday ritual of checking the front door, the car door, back door, garage door, you name it, you can go back and check it. Professor O’Gorman admitted his own tendency to lock the door, walk a few paces along the street before turning round and going back to check the already double checked door. On paper it sounds ludicrous, but it’s what we all do. The comedic potential of worry was considered by O’Gorman, and audience participation suggested the chance of it being pleasurable, using sport as an example. It’s far more enjoyable and riveting to watch a worrying match where the outcome is unpredictable.

Professor O’Gorman suggested a figurehead for the state of worrying most of us find ourselves in at one time or another. Mycroft Holmes, elder sibling to Sherlock, is attributed a far more analytical brain by his creator, Conan Doyle, than his famous brother. However the difference is Mycroft is a ruminator and Sherlock the doer. The worrier is Mycroft and his thoughts, the non-worrier is Sherlock and his action. “Does being a worrier therefore not make us pessimistic?” from the audience. Worrying opens up the possibility of both pessimism and optimism, the chance to ponder albeit perhaps too much. ‘Risk assessment gone wrong’, as O’Gorman has termed it.

I’d be the first to admit I worry. So a book that details and tries to explain the phenomenon was always going to interest me. As a process it lies within the hands of an individual to control, which is what makes it so interesting and hard to catalogue.

Megan Patrick

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Think positive. Work hard. But where did self help come from? Professor Malcolm Chase discusses

As part of the Debating the Book series and precisely the 148th event of this year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, Professor Malcolm Chase’s talk on the history of the self help book proved a popular attraction. Finding my way through the picturesque little town to the playhouse I sat down to listen knowing I had little knowledge of the subject that was to be discussed, making me all the more eager to listen.

I’ve never read a self help book. However, self help comes in many forms. Surely in 21st century Britain where we’re surrounded by digital and social media at all times, we’re constantly receiving instructions on how to improve ourselves: how to dress, what to eat, the list continues. But I’ve never really thought about actively seeking self help, a concept whose origins lie far beyond magazine pages and Twitter feeds.

Largely thought of as a fairly modern or postmodern American phenomenon, Professor Chase wanted to correct the stereotypical view. ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ was written in 1936 by Dale Carnegie. Held up as the bestselling self help of all time it’s easy to see why earlier versions of such books have been overlooked. After all, Carnegie’s book still ranks at 63rd on Amazon’s bestseller list some 79 years after its publication. Norman Vincent Peale’s ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ written in 1952 is widely regarded as the next go-to self help guide. Undeniably these two books play huge roles in the history of the self help genre, but Professor Chase wanted to inform us of their predecessors.

Self help it appears is actually a product of Victorian Britain. Discovered after extensive research on the Chartist movement of the 1840s, it seemed two notable members of the movement went on to create self help guides for their followers. Samuel Smiles’ appropriately named ‘Self Help’ was released in 1859 and outsold some of the century’s most popular books, Charles Dickens included. His peer, Robert Kemp Philp, had published his self help guide entitled ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ three years prior. As an interesting pub quiz trivia fact, the earliest prototype of Tim Berners-Lee’s world wide web was named ENQUIRE, taking its inspiration from Philp’s work. Arguably one of the world’s most important inventions took its inspiration from a book which many people, myself included, have never heard of.

Does it not stand to reason, suggested Professor Chase, that the self help guide being ever present in modern history deserves more respect in terms of genre? An audience full of thought provoked listeners had been given enough evidence to think it over. Personally as an avid reader and English student I have never even considered self help to be a genre. But when a book is in its 116th edition as Philp’s is and a book from 1859 sells more copies than Harper Lee’s sequel to one of the all time classics, surely its place in literature has to be considered. I for one was very much persuaded by Chase’s argument and think that any book of such high impact should be regarded both more highly and widely.

I hope I’ve conveyed all I learnt on my trip to Ilkley as I went unsure of what to expect and left thinking that I’ve perhaps been ignorant and unaware of what self help is and in what forms it comes. It was overall a very informative and interesting evening and the possibility to extend the boundaries of literary study and encompass more non-fiction texts such as Smiles’, Philp’s, Carnegie’s and Peale’s is very feasible. Modern life provides us with advice in many forms, but to discover its origins in Victorian England was beyond what I thought I’d find out.

Professor Chase’s book on the History of Self-Help is planned for publication in 2018.

– Megan Patrick

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Collecting the Future in Artists Books – by Laura Bithell

Laura Bithell, an undergraduate from the School of English, reports from Chris Taylor’s talk on the Artists’ Book Collection at the Brotherton Library…


What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Artist’s Book’? It’s not surprising if you don’t really know what it means. Perhaps you’d assume the term simply covers collections of art produced by a gallery, but it’s a much broader and more exciting category than that. As Chris Taylor explained in his introduction to ‘Collecting the Future’, he chose this topic first and foremost because he wanted to ‘highlight that these things exist’. Having always had a passion for this genre, he believes the Leeds library collection should be expanded and more people be made aware of it.

With his favourite examples laid out in front of him, Chris began take us through his choices. From a fold out origami-like piece with AEIOU printed on it to a series of cut-out domestic objects arranged together to form the figure of a woman, it soon became apparent that this was a very diverse and intriguing category of book. Chris also drew our attention to the title of each book, made more significant by many pieces having minimal content inside. For example a collection of delicate sketches of birds’ feathers was entitled ‘Lost Property’ giving a whole new meaning to the beautiful artwork within.

After giving his talk, Chris invited audience members to interact with the pieces. As he pointed out, these books were meant to be handled and engaged with, not carefully displayed behind glass. All of the examples were so unique and interesting it’s hard to select a few to talk about, but here are some of the highlights from the collection:

Auauto fronttobiography by A. Lewitt

As the name suggests, this is a very personal piece, with the artist photographing every inch of his apartment and each page containing nine different images of the same area. It made you wonder whether this can really give you a true insight into the artist’s life and personality.



Cover to Cover by Michael Nicholsoncover to cover

The title suggests that reading the book is a journey through the pages. As you flick through, you’ll notice sketches of the artist himself on each page, something very typical of Nicholson’s work.  Chris noted that this was really interesting when considering the term ‘Artists’ Book’ as the artist of this book is literally bound within the pages.




Drawdrawing breathing Breath by Jayne Wilton


At first this looks like a book full of beautiful abstract paintings, however the story behind it is much more striking. Each page was created by a single breath directed onto photo-sensitive paper, creating intricate patterns of colour. Many of these were produced at a hospice, where they might literally be capturing someone’s last breath.



Trieste Zürich Paris – A Liminal Score by John McDowallscore

We were lucky enough to have John McDowall with us to talk about his own Artists’ Book Trieste Zürich Paris – a liminal score. The pages of this beautiful book look like a distorted musical score, but are actually prints of the edges of city maps, specifically the three cities where James Joyce wrote his famous novel Ulysses.



on loanOn Loan: An Exhibition of Borrowed Art Lent by Artists

One of the more unusual pieces, this is categorised as an Artists’ Book but closer resembles a miniature library filing system. The tiny cards detail the artists and artworks on display at a Coracle Press exhibition. Although the exhibition is no longer running, it is preserved within this piece like a little snapshot of history.





19581958 by Francis van Maele

Another very personal piece which alludes to the idea of an artist as a collector. As Chris pointed out, it’s ‘almost like trainspotting’. The book contains many photographs from 1958 of different cars and their number plates, including a note of the country they come from. Francis van Maele has also included other childhood photographs from this year, giving the piece a real sense of nostalgia and capturing the era beautifully.




Collecting the Future is just one of the many events going on this month as part of the ‘Debating the Book’ programme. Check out the event page for more information:

– photos and text by Laura Bithell

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Don’t drop your kindle in the bath! Megan Patrick reflects on the Future of the Book

In the first of our student blogs, Megan Patrick gives her impression of the Future of the Book debate on 8 October.


As the feature event of the ‘Debating the Book’ series this month, ‘The Future of the Book: A Public Debate’ provided an hour and a half’s thoroughly thought provoking entertainment on a dull Thursday night in Leeds. White Rose brought its representatives from the universities of York and Sheffield with Professor Brian Cummings and Dr Bridgette Wessels respectively giving their take on what the book meant to them and what they could foresee happening in its future. Dr Jim Mussell was our University of Leeds spokesperson and the academics were joined by James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, and Dr Stella Butler, university librarian here at Leeds. A brief introduction from the night’s chair and Leeds Chancellor Lord Melvyn Bragg got the evening’s discussion underway.


We began with Professor Brian Cummings, the University of York’s early modernist historian of the book. He stressed the vital importance of the book and its potency. ‘Books are not dead things’ we were told, adding that ‘he who destroys a good book kills reason itself’. This line by Milton seemed to perfectly summarise Professor Cumming’s argument. What we are actually in fear of is the death of the codex, the sequence of bound paper pages. Dr Mussell added that books existed before the printing press just as they now continue to exist in the digital age. An exaggeration of the death of the book will not stop writing surviving as knowledge has no circumscription. Dr Mussell also pointed out that the book exists in its wholeness. There is a beginning, a middle and an end, a series of cause and effects. Whether symbolised by a front and back cover with a dust jacket or by a display showing page numbers on an electronic device, the book is a whole. Using Alice in Wonderland as his literary example, we recall the scene where the King of Hearts tells the White Rabbit to ‘begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop’. A succinct argument to describe what makes the book, and pointing out that we exist in equilibrium with them; just as books move us, it is us who physically move them in the act of reading.


Dr Bridgette Wessels of the University of Sheffield added that books come alive through the people who read them, whether they are a hardback codex or stored in megabytes on the memory of an eReader. However, the physicality, aesthetics and material form of a concrete book became centrally important to Wessels’ argument. Admitting that the eBook provides diversity which has its advantages and disadvantes, the look and feel of a physical book outweighs the digital. And most importantly, the battery doesn’t run out. James Daunt of Waterstones agreed with Dr Wessels in that the tangible aspect of a bound codex will forever be preferable to the electronic pages of a digital publication. From a business perspective the bookseller now needs to balance the demand for digital and physical books, a balance which proved essential after Waterstones went bankrupt a few years ago. With online giants such as Amazon on the scene the bookselling world has had to adapt to its changing, unstable environment. This business acumen has a similar role to play in libraries, Stella Butler added, with consumers wanting an array of accessible online material rather than just paper copies.


Panellists’ opinions on the future of the book seemed to underline some shared thoughts. Most importantly we seemed to establish that the rise of the digital book by no means spells the end for the paper form. Using transport as a useful analogy illustrated this: 21st-century Britain relies most substantially on cars, yet we still have canals and bicycles. Secondly, the advantage of the accessibility of online literature is undeniable. In a generation where all the information you require is yours at the touch of a few buttons, it’s no surprise getting hold of a book no longer takes more than a few minutes. One worry the panellists shared was about the preservation of digital books. Dr Butler commented that given the right storage conditions we can preserve a paper book for centuries, Shakespeare’s First Folio for example, but information stored in cyberspace is a lot harder to keep track of. A digitised copy of the Doomsday Book existed from 1986-2000 before it was completely lost. The overriding theme seemed to suggest that the sentimental value of reading a tangible, physical piece of work rather than one created by battery powered lights and displays will struggle to be outweighed.


Audience participation lent the same way with regards to attitude towards the codex. Digitisation opens up opportunities but these shouldn’t be at the expense of losing tradition. There’s room for more dynamic and imaginative ways of reading digitally, agreed, but there’s a lack of serendipity when faced with a search box that comes in no short supply on the shelves of a good bookshop. It isn’t an either or, we can use technology without throwing the paper book to the wolves as it were. Summed up in one of the final comments, the premise that encapsulates the difference between the paper book and its digital descendent was delivered: until you can drop an eReader in the bath and it lives to tell the tale, it won’t replace our battered copies of favourite novels that line our shelves.


Closing the debate, Lord Melvyn Bragg thanked the panellists and us as the audience for our participation. It certainly left me and others I spoke to afterwards with food for thought. In my personal and academic life I read so often in different forms that I’d never really stopped and thought about the effect of the digital world upon the printing one. I can’t discredit the digital book in anyway, the ease of sourcing and accessing information is integral to my degree work. But if I want to read something to move me, to enjoy and even to treasure I have no hesitation in telling you I’d head straight to a shelf and probably pick up a book so worn out it has no front cover than decide to pick up my iPad.


For those who missed Thursday’s debate, a recording is available at:


Megan Patrick

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Debating the Book first week

We’ve had a busy first week at Debating the Book HQ!  Fozia Bora kicked off our programme in front of a packed-out audience at Ilkley Literature Festival last Saturday; our guided reading group met at Blackwells Bookshop to discuss the first few chapters of Sherlock Holmes and the Valley of Fear; the Treasures of the Brotherton went on display; Chris Taylor introduced audiences to the world of the artists book; Centre CHoP celebrated the history of small-press printing at Leeds; and last but not least University Chancellor Melvyn Bragg chaired a vibrant debate between truly distinguished guests and an enthusiastic audience on the Future of the Book.


There’s lots more coming up this week: poetry at the Chemic Tavern from Helen Mort and Rachel Bower, Francis O’Gorman speaks about his book on Worrying; and events on rare book collecting, self-help books, and historical printing.  The guided reading group is continuing too, and don’t forget Saturday’s tour of the Leeds Library!

See the Debating the Book website for more information about these and other events in October.  We look forward to seeing you there!

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