Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 12, 2020

The Innocent Reader, by Debra Adelaide

I wish, I really wish, I’d found time to read this book before last Christmas—because if I had, by now, you would all have your own copy and so would your friends because you would have given them all a copy as a present.  I am not really a fan of books about reading, but The Innocent Reader has brought me so much pleasure, I hardly know how to begin.

Perhaps at the end?  In the last chapter titled ‘In Bed with Flaubert’, Adelaide writes an uncannily accurate description of what it’s like to be what she calls an incompetent sleeper. Somehow, she manages to describe the torture of insomnia with humour and grace, listing every trick, remedy, therapy, from folklore tale to contemporary medical advice, and every suggestion from people who claim to suffer from insomnia themselves, and have cured it by one simple method or another:

Nothing works.  You count sheep.  You count goats.  You count animals in masses: fleas on dogs, schools of sardines, a hive of bees. Locusts, budgerigars and ants—anything that lives in large groups—you count them all and still, and after the nine hundred and ninety-ninth termite, the one thousandth fruit bat, sleep remains elusive.  You memorise then recite the Periodic Table of Elements and still remain awake by the time you arrive at 118, oganesson.  (p.250)

As she says,  your body is unbelievably wily.  It is fooled by nothing.   And so, just like me, she reads.

If you can’t sleep but your brain isn’t alert enough to be useful and learn introductory Spanish or memorise the  Crimes Act (1900) then you can at least comfort and indulge yourself with reading novels, and long romantic poems.  Medications wear off, warm drinks go cold, therapeutic pillows and blankets become stiff and lumpy, but the books remains the same. (p.252)

Yes.  Reliable, patient, responsive to our desire yet always like new. Beautiful books, written just for us, as this book has been written just for me by Debra Adelaide.

I love what she writes about how other people seem to get by with reading the paper and watching the news, but reading—which is supposed to fill up the gloomy void of ignorance—instead expands it. Because we readers are never satisfied:

The more you read the more you become aware of the enormous holes in your reading, and the more authors there are to read unfold before you.

Arrive at adulthood as I did having read Austen and Dickens, and lo! there are the other classics… and then there are the French and German ones you didn’t discover until middle age.  And then, what about the wealth of contemporary writing, and translated fiction, and all the underrated women authors that you haven’t read?  I was reminded of this just yesterday when I was chatting with Joe at Rough Ghosts—he had just written a superb review of Saudade, a book from Angola which had broadened my horizons because I knew nothing at all about Angola until I read it. I could wallpaper my library if I printed out the number of times I’ve introduced a review with the words ‘I knew nothing about this #InsertSubject/Country/History until I read #InsertNameOfBook’.

Yes, the books you read do this to you, and that’s not all. Adelaide doesn’t mention the way blogging friends writing enticing reviews add to this delightful problem.  No wonder we all have groaning TBRs and not enough storage place.  Not even me, with my purpose-built library.

There is an hilarious essay about Adelaide’s experience with students at writing schools.  I once started  a course in Professional Writing and Editing (and nearly finished it but abandoned ship when a Writing Non-fiction turned out to be writing for tabloids.)  She has not only described my Short Story class perfectly, but *cringe* me as well.  Why, she asks, do people sign up for courses taught by experienced writers, who have books in the marketplace and experience with publishers, only to take no notice whatsoever of the teacher’s published work or her advice?  Everybody wants to be a writer, but nobody wants to learn what it really entails because they think they already know.  It must be exasperating.

Her advice to writers BTW contains so many gems there is little I can say except that every aspiring writer should buy this book, but I will share this one, because I love it so:

There is a lesson to be learned in all of the above [in the chapter called ‘Terms and Conditions’] but it is not a lesson about the craft of writing, rather one about human nature.  Whoever became a good parent by reading a book on the topic or attending antenatal classes?  They became good when their child cried and cried and they found they could soothe her by stroking her forehead or by holding her prone or by taking her for a walk.  They will not even know this until then try one thing then another, until they find whatever it is making that baby cry, and how to fix it.  Writers must similarly work it out for themselves, and not just for them as writers, but for that particular story, script or book, because there is one other certain thing: what works for one novel sure as hell is not going to work for the next. (p.157)

I had another cringeworthy moment when I read ‘Do Not Tell Me a Story’…

Everyone has a story in them.  Everyone has a novel in them, or so it is frequently said.  And humans tell stories.  It is part of who we are, though some cultures prioritise storytelling much more than others.  So it makes sense that people everywhere, from cocktail parties to wedding receptions and the signing queues in bookshops, lean forward confidentially and offer you a story, if only you are prepared to write it.  Mission: Impossible.  Your job, Mr Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to write a 150,000 word bestseller based on this incredible tale I am giving you right now, and be eternally grateful.  Good luck, Jim. (p.107)

Yup, I’ve done that.  Not quite like this example, but still…

Here is the scenario, which every writer has experienced more or less, and in any variety of circumstances.  For clarity’s sake I will streamline the story.  In this case it is at a fiftieth birthday party.  A woman I have never met before, upon hearing I am an author, leans towards me and tells me she has a story for me, and it is such an extraordinary one that I will want to put down my glass of wine and race home to my desk and commence writing it that very evening.  It is the story of her family, and the things you wouldn’t believe! It’s a long saga spreading across five generations.  (p. 108)

And on this woman goes for three-quarters of a page…

Well, we’ve all had to work out strategies for extricating ourselves from interminable family history stories at social occasions.  At least in my defence I can say that my ‘story’ came about over a chatty lunch with the author Susan Johnson, and I had no intention of suggesting that she (or anyone else) should write it.  She was the one who said it should be turned into a novel.  I told her she could use it herself if she wanted to. (I don’t think she ever has).

There is an interesting article about reviewing, its ethical obligations and the diminishing opportunities for paid reviewing—and also the first acknowledgement I have ever seen in print that despite the democratisation of reviewing and the interference of algorithms at Goodreads and Amazon, the fact is there are numerous excellent literary blogs and online journals delivering quality reviews to readers, all free.  I don’t count my little blog as in the company of the ‘excellent’, but ANZ LitLovers is informed by a lifetime of serious reading, and it is sincere, and careful, and as respectful and honest as I can make it.  So it is rewarding to see a counter to the dismissive opinions of so many in the print media.

I’ve worked backwards through this lovely book, and ended up at the chapter entitled ‘Reading is Sport’.  What a splendid argument for justifying absconding from sport in one’s school days! It’s true, reading is sport.  You do exercise your eyes.  And your mind. And it’s also true that sport is nothing more than a cruel series of jokes invented for the physical and emotional torture of types like myself.  And likewise, a reader who tries to fit in and be ‘normal’ by playing netball is doomed to fail.  I once filled in for a missing player because the team thought I’d be good at it since I was tall. Proximity to the net is no help if you miss catches, or you hold the ball too long, or you throw it to the wrong team.  Debra Adelaide does not mention ducking when the ball comes unwanted in your direction, but trust me, that doesn’t make you an asset to the team either…

I don’t know why schools inflict sport on readers.  The world does not need more sporting types.  It needs more readers.

Author: Debra Adelaide
Title:  The Innocent Reader
Cover design by Debra Billson, cover image by George Cave Gaskin/Getty Images
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781760784355, pbk., 257 pages
Review copy courtesy of Picador (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Available from Fishpond: The Innocent Reader: Reflections on Reading and Writing and good bookshops everywhere.


  1. So did Susan Johnson write that novel herself? Is it the one that was very successful? I found that paragraph a bit confusing.


    • *chuckle* Sorry, Bernie, no we just talked about books and writing at that lunch. Neither of us have turned my anecdote into a book!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this review. I am such a promoter of reading that am sure it is a pain to some. But when you’re a believer!!! I say there are ‘readers’ and ‘others’. We are a different species I think. My most enduring pleasure.


    • Yes, readers and everyone else. I pity them, actually…


  3. You are being too modest. I would definitely count your blog as an excellent example of it’s kind!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have this book and also loved it! Her section on writing classes caused me much mirth – I’ve just walked away from my local writing group because one man reads endlessly tedious, very poor Sci Fi which he thinks is wonderful and cannot believe when the rest of us say we zoned out after the first paragraph… in the end you give up trying…

    When I picked this book up I didn’t think I would like it because I don’t like her book The Household Guide to Dying (the only one of hers I’ve read) but I must admit I did enjoy The Innocent Reader and am glad I purchased it. Thanks for the review!


    • No, I didn’t like that one either, but I really liked Serpent Dust and have always meant to seek out her earlier novels.
      That chapter on writing classes, no wonder I couldn’t get to sleep last night!


  5. I’ve only read your first paragraph and last, because I bought this book before Christmas but haven’t read it either. When I do, I’ll read the rest.

    However, as a non-sporty person who spent most of her sports periods as scorer or reserve, I do think sport is important. I think at school sporty types should be encouraged to read, and reading types encouraged to do sport – with the recognition that everyone can’t be great at everything but that exercise and reading are good for everyone. If that makes sense!


    • I’ll agree with you that exercise is important, but not that sport is the same thing. Because it’s not. In fact, from what I’ve seen of interschool sport on Friday, the children spend most of the time on the bus getting there and hardly any time actually moving. And I don’t think that competition brings out the best in people.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think we’ll agree to disagree, partly because I accept some of what you say – just not all of it! I think sport is a complex thing that, done right, has a role to play in people’s lives.


  6. Fun post. The book sounds inviting.


    • I think you’d love this:)


  7. I like sport AND reading. At Blackburn South we would ride our bikes to play hockey at Blackburn or football at Burwood, so there was more exercise (yes I know, the insurance situation makes that impossible now). but I still found, and find, plenty of time for reading, though not books about reading if I can at all help it. I don’t go to dinner parties so I am relatively safe from the sin of telling my story to novelists, and anyway, my life seems to be not so much a novel as a string of barely connected short stories.


    • Hey, I have an Offspring who has played representative rugby, completed the Melbourne to Warrnambool twice, played every sport known to man at some stage , and is still playing ice hockey even now. He loves it, and I’m proud of his achievements. I’m not against sport. I’m against compulsory sport at school and I’m against the pervasive idea that there is something wrong with you if you don’t like (a) playing it and (b) watching it and (c) hearing about it ad nauseam in the media.
      Sport makes more kids miserable at school than any other subject, and the evidence is before us that it does not make Australians fitter or healthier. I think there should be daily exercise programs at school instead.


  8. LOL. I hated sport too – give me a book any day! And this does sound lovely – you definitely should have timed your post for December!! :D


  9. I really enjoy Debra Adelaide’s writing, and will have to read this. I’m not sure how I missed it earlier. Thank you, Lisa. Your job is done ;-)


    • Oh yes, this is definitely your kind of book:)


  10. Oh I do agree with you Lisa – I was a bookish kid and I loathed school sports, all group competitive ones like basketball etc – and I was humiliated by always being picked last to go on any team! It’s awful for a kid to be humiliated in front of her peers like that.

    I loved bushwalking and horse riding but they weren’t school sports so I never fitted in.

    I’d rather see kids just be able to join a walking group or a general exercise class thanks!


    • Or dance classes! How I would have loved to have learned to dance properly:)


  11. I have this but have let it languish on my tbr…


  12. I love netball and reading and I’ve added this book to my TBR!


    • Ha! You are a much braver person than I am!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Only in admitting this here!


        • No, really, when I was a young teacher I was asked to fill in at netball by some colleagues because they were short for a game to get into the finals, and it was my first ever (and only) experience of competitive sport. I was terrified. Those women were fierce, and though I had told my team that I was no good at it, they’d thought I was being modest, because I was tall. I don’t think they’d ever seen such incompetence and *blush* craven cowardice on their courts…
          They ended up playing one-person-short anyway because within two minutes I was told just to keep out of the way. And I certainly did.

          Liked by 1 person

          • You poor thing. If the game meant that much to them they should never have bossed you into playing. I remember when I started playing for an under 10s team in the country listening to the mothers* of my team mates complaining about the attitude of the mothers on the opposition team. They were taking the game very seriously and telling their daughters to let us get some goals (we were losing) because it would be good for the percentages… The scornful attitudes of my team’s mothers made it clear from the beginning that sport should be fun.
            *Not my mother though, she watched us play for years and I’m sure she never had any idea of the rules, let alone tactics. In our area, the proper thing was cricket for boys in summer and football and netball for girls in winter, so that’s what we did!


            • To be fair to them, they probably never imagined just how hopeless I was!
              There are lots of issues around sport and competitiveness and that’s fine for people who thrive on it, but I don’t think anyone should be made to do it. I wanted my child to try everything once, and then if he didn’t like it, it was fine with me. From beetroot to piano lessons, from camping to ice hockey, that worked well for us.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I think it takes a particular type of person to be competitive in sport but I also think most of us are competitive in some area of our life.
                We’re lucky to have so many activities to choose from in the city.


                • Yes, I’m competitive at Trivial Pursuit! (But, you guessed it, reliant on having some expertise in sport and popular culture on the team).

                  Liked by 1 person

                • This made me laugh. I quite frequently do the little Ultimate Trivia Quiz in my online newspaper. It’s multiple choice and divided into seven categories. Interestingly, there isn’t a sport one, but the one I regularly do worst at is Entertainment, because even with multiple choice I frequently have to guess. (And when I say worst I mean usually very badly as in around 4 to 6 out of 10.) The one I do best at is Dictionary, where I mostly get 10, and occasionally 9.

                  Liked by 1 person

  13. Oh no! I finished your review and immediately hopped to Book Depository but it’s not even listed. Nor is it on Amazon or anywhere else I can see in the UK. I could get the e version I know but this is a book that needs to be held in the hands and savoured (I find I rattle through ebooks too quickly to really absorb).

    The comment:
    The more you read the more you become aware of the enormous holes in your reading, and the more authors there are to read unfold before you.

    Could not be more true. As a former boss of mine said “I’m constantly surprised by how much I don’t know”


    • This surprises me, Pan Macmillan is international. I’ll contact them and see what plans there are for release in the UK.


      • I’ll be interested to know what they say – I think there will be quite a number of intrested readers in the uk


  14. […] ANZ LitLovers LitBlog macht Lust auf Debra Adelaides Buch The Innocent Reader. […]


  15. […] The Innocent Reader, by Debra Adelaide […]


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