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How did you become interested in the reading girls?

Reading is talked about frequently today as something unobjectionably good. I was interested in studying the social and norm-giving sides of fiction reading. In contrast to the non-reading boys, the reading girls are portrayed as ideal in the public discourse of young people and reading. By studying the reading girl as an historic and cultural subject, you can grasp historically shifting ideas of what good reading means and what historically has been considered a good girlhood. And in what way such constructions remain in the contemporary view of the reading girls. The interest for the reading girls is thereby both literary-sociological and gender theoretical. 

Is reading a political act? How important is reading for democracy and citizenship today?

Reading is absolutely a political act. It is a practice that has caused and still give birth to supervision and regulation of societal groups. We have, for example, seen it when reading became a more prevalent practice during the 18th century and women’s reading came under scrutiny. Or today when there are big ventures made in order to get children, especially boys, to read more. That reading has such good status in our time has motivated political measures to increase reading among youth, especially boys, while children and young people’s reading simultaneously is examined and investigated.

Reading has, for thousands of years, been discussed, criticised, and celebrated – based on who has read and what has been read. My dissertation focuses partly on how this who and what has declined in relevancy when you look at how “good reading” is constructed in reading surveys and knowledge measurements during the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century. Today, and especially in international tests such as PISA, good reading is measured primarily in the ability to code and process information. To become a good reader in this discourse, the individual is exacted a “purpose” rather than good taste.

How has girls’ reading/the view on girls’ reading changed throughout the century?

Reading surveys driven by child psychology during the 1940s constructed a girl who read a lot, but who from time to time could stray in her fiction reading. One deemed, for example, that there was an important breaking point between childhood and youth where girls could be lead astray in the reading of such literature that was seen as morally questionable. When good reading later, around the 1970s, to a higher degree became measured quantitatively – that is, in amount of books read per month or amount of books covering the shelves at home – the reading girls could attain the position of good readers. This position is still offered reading girls today when governmentally initiated reading surveys, national measurements, and international knowledge tests tend to measure reading in amounts. In this way, you could say that the view of reading that exists in such grand studies, the quantitative, has profited the girl reader. She has previously, and in discourses that surround quality and education, often been criticised based on her choice of literature.

Was there anything in your research that surprised you?

I was surprised over the demonstrations of strength that were and are shown during the recent decades to get children and youth to read more. On the internet, there are enormous databases filled with young people’s test results in, among other things, reading ability. That children and young people’s reading during the 20th century became a research topic, which resulted in being able to use “reading ability” as a scientific object to collect in large databases open for public use – that surprised me.

And what are your plans or wishes for the future?

In the latest governmental investigation about children and young people’s reading from 2018, it was discussed how the entire society should engage itself to increase reading among children and youth specifically. Reading is discussed as a matter of public health. In other places, including the university sphere, reading is studied as therapy and medicine. It is an interesting health rhetoric that I think would be fun to study closer – especially from an historical and power theory perspective.

Download Sara Anderssons dissertation: Reading girls. Policies of reading and the transparent subject from DiVA.