Book review: 'The innocent reader: reflections on reading and writing' (December 2019)

by Stephanie Preston

In The Innocent Reader by Debra Adelaide, she offers generous meditations on writing, editing and reading. Many of the essays will resonate with members, particularly those on Adelaide’s early experience as an editor. She writes about the changing nature of publishing, the trials of working for deadline-driven commercial publishers, and the occasional challenging writer. She shines a light on what can be achieved in the writer/editor relationship, and how she deeply appreciates that, having embodied both. As a writer, it appears that she has largely relished having her work edited. ‘The thrill, the joy, the extraordinary privilege of having one’s work edited, is almost inexpressible’ (p. 239).

Adelaide peels back the covers a little on the mystery that surrounds the often unacknowledged role of the editor. It’s a topic usually only spoken about in hushed tones among editors themselves, and ‘… it is unsurprising that even writers are unaware of what it means to be edited given the activity is relegated to the shadows’ (p. 238). She highlights both advantages and drawbacks for this veil of secrecy – a dialogue that is refreshing and welcome.

As a writing teacher, Adelaide makes an effort to impart the value of critique in her students, both to prepare them for the editing process and to produce manuscripts that are publisher-ready. There are a couple of moments of pure comedy in the book, including her description of the self-anointed geniuses in her creative writing classes.

Another amusement was found in her writing about book reviewing and how it has been democratised: ‘… now the literary pages are opened up to the ordinary riffraff … People like you and me’ (p. 171). I thought immediately about my Instagram account dedicated to reviewing what I read, and how the last time I heard the word "riffraff" was when watching Fawlty Towers at least 15 years ago. I laughed heartily, and then reflected on how the small community ingesting my reviews has spurred me to read more broadly, but also with more dedication, the topics or types of writers that I want to encourage other readers to engage with. And that brings us to reading.

Though Adelaide writes and teaches, and has edited in the past, it’s her identity as a reader that appears to most powerfully lead those pursuits, indeed The Innocent Reader is bookended with essays about reading. These were the most affecting for me, where she writes about what reading has given her: discovery, escape, knowledge, comfort. Reading offers us the ability to imagine different versions of ourselves, and the opportunity to disappear into other worlds entirely. The first essay is about discovering books as a child and reading compulsively, working her way through the public library, and spending her entire school holidays working her way through The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The final essay is about reading in adulthood, how many classify it as an indulgent pastime, but Adelaide paints us a picture of the book as a lover. Books are reliable and patient; books bring us pleasure.

In those two essays, I felt the most connected to Adelaide’s words, and indeed my own love of reading held me up in writing this very review. When I finished The Innocent Reader, I mechanically picked up the next book waiting for me on my bedside table, Charlotte Wood’s new novel, and was instantly under its spell. I kept trying to put it down but almost as soon as I did, I’d slip it open again and devour more. Adelaide has captured that spell of a book in these essays and, using potent, big-hearted illustrations from her own life, she reveals the symbiotic, nurturing ecosystem where the writer, editor and reader all live.

Stephanie Preston is a freelance copyeditor, proofreader and indexer. She is a reformed public servant, having worked in television, transport and community development. Though she currently largely works with corporate and small business clients, she is easing/worming her way into working with authors. She is an unapologetically indulgent reader and writes mini-book reviews on Instagram under the handle @_badbitchesbookclub.