Friday 3 March 2017

For Sale, Baby Shoes. . . | Stories: hearing, reading, telling

Yesterday (2nd March) was World Book Day: a worldwide celebration of books and reading, marked in over a 100 countries. In the UK and Ireland the main aim 'is to encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own'.

To mark the day I decided to write a little about what reading (and writing) means to me. My own love of reading was nurtured by my parents. The first book my dad purchased was a hard-backed copy of Treasure Island from the local Woolworth’s for sixpence (2 1/2p). Good at woodwork he made a small bookcase for an end-of-term examination and filled this and many others, many times over (his taste also eclectic) over his life. There weren’t many books in my mum’s childhood home and she told me of how as a new bride she read through my dad’s collection whilst he was working nights at the factory and she remained an avid reader for all of her life.

In his unpublished memoir, writing about his late teenage years my father wrote ‘I was never without a book in my pocket and every spare moment would be used to get through a few more pages’ (Ronald Thornton (unpublished) Memoir of a Life (Journeys and Changes ‘A Chronicle of Events) p15). This is how I remember my late husband John, never without a book, if not reading for work (as a sociology and criminology lecturer), often a crime story of some kind. In my dad’s memoir I read of his pleasure at reading P. G. Woodhouse as a young man but it was John though who introduced me to the written version of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. The day before John died I took a selection of novels into the hospital for him, ‘things are looking up’ he said with a smile.

My own reading taste is eclectic and recently I have become interested (following my father) in different sorts of writing. So, in addition to my sociological academic work in areas as diverse as reproductive disruption, travel and transport, methodology, working and learning in higher education and grief and loss I have begun to write fiction, research-based fiction (or faction as I’ve called it elsewhere), political non-fiction and memoir. These endeavours have led to an interest in writing about writing and like many others I was charmed and inspired by the account of Ernest Hemingway’s invention of the six word story:

. . . the six word story, it’s said came for a ten-dollar bet Hemingway made at a lunch with some other writers that he could write a novel in six words. After penning the famous line on a napkin, he passed it around the table and collected his winnings.

The prize was won for the following: For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn. However:

In fact, it seems that versions of the six-word story appeared long before Hemingway even began to write, at least as early as 1906, when he was only 7, in a newspaper classified section called ‘Terse Tales of the Town,’ which published an item that read, ‘For sale, baby carriage, never been used. Apply at this office’. . .

Whatever the origins writing to this concise word limit is a disciplining and entertaining way to practice storytelling. Donald Trump has apparently, with reference to his presence on Twitter, described himself as the Ernest Hemmingway of 140 characters, but let's not dwell on that for now. 

Here are a few examples of my own six word stories.

Sad Ones
Hero returns. Left shoe lays dusty.

Just impediment announced. Congregation goes hungry.

Lonely Hearts: egocentric loner seeks similar.

Bloody knickers. Precious family plans dashed.

Silly Ones
Close encounter denied. ET no change.

Zombies sell hugs. Treat or trick?

Dog collar wearer prefers missionary position.

Restless tomb dwellers enjoy weekend haunt.

Political Ones
Publicly washed political linen helps none.

Climate change denier drowning, not waving.

Will of the people? Voter apathy?

Poverty ended. Inequality quashed. Fake news.


The other day I came across a twitter challenge to ‘write a sad story in three words’. One example given – ‘Tory cuts kill’ – prove this is possible.

Writers, I think, get better the more they practice. But reading and listening to the work of others is also an essential, as well as pleasurable, part of the process. Amongst my own storytelling pleasures are talking with others about books, articles, stories we have read and passing on or buying books for others (two close friends of mine refer to part of their young daughter’s book collection as the Gayle Letherby Library). Reading, writing and storytelling (in all its forms) can be both a private and a collective experience. Reading, writing and storytelling is educational, entertaining, challenging and enchanting. Telling stories and hearing them are embodied experiences engaging our senses and our emotions. Just one reason of the need to fight against continued threat to public libraries.
Plymouth City Council has plans to close 10 of the city's 17 libraries

For an example of a campaign see

No comments:

Post a Comment