As I write these lines, I would normally be setting off to Prospect Park Hospital where, as part of my work for The Reader – a national charity, based in Liverpool – I run Shared Reading groups. But today, like so many people, I find myself at home, on furlough, and with time not only for plenty of personal reading, but also, this morning, to reflect on part of my own reading story over the past few years.
I first came across the work of The Reader in 2008 when I chanced upon an article, ‘The Reading Cure’ written by Blake Morrison in The Guardian; it is no exaggeration to say that reading it completely altered the course of my life. How dramatic that sounds, but so very true. The article describes a project (then called Get into Reading) based in Merseyside. The project, and the thinking behind its conception, immediately struck a chord with me as I read about how Jane Davis, the founder and director of The Reader, was taking great literature, regarded by some as belonging in the academic world, out into ordinary communities to be read, and enjoyed and used as a tool for living.
Of course. Hadn’t I always known that this was what reading was for: to help each of us work out this tricky business of how to live? There was no option then, for me, but to find out more, and to become part of what the organisation later came to describe as a Reading Revolution. In 2009, I trained to run groups and continued to spread the word to anyone who would listen.
Thanks to the help and encouragement of Heather Dyson at Wokingham Library and to receptive and enthusiastic individuals at Berkshire Healthcare Trust and HMP Reading YOI, I was able to bring a small presence of Shared Reading to Wokingham and Reading, firstly as a self-appointed advocate for The Reader, and then as a Reader employee. Initially, I delivered reading groups in the library, the hospital and the prison, before eventually moving into training and mentoring people running groups voluntarily, or in a professional capacity, in various settings nationally. I have, in the past couple of years, come full circle, back to the joy of delivering a dayful of groups in Prospect Park Hospital (at least, until recently), and to my continuing personal interest in the volunteers and the groups that they have so faithfully been running at Wokingham Library for so long.
Back to 2008: and I was not the only one, it happens, to be so moved by the Blake Morrison piece. In Issue 71 of the recently relaunched Reader Magazine, Jane Davis writes about the article’s far-reaching effects, and she also tells of how The Reader’s work has developed over the subsequent decade. Some things have changed: The Reader has become a movement with 1000+ volunteers at its heart; it has a wonderful home at The International Centre for Shared Reading in Calderstones Mansion, Liverpool; its flagship Shared Reading model has been exported to 15 countries from Australia to Denmark, from Belgium to Canada, from Hong Kong to Republic of Ireland.
And who knows what the next ten years will bring – or, indeed, what the very immediate future holds? But of one thing I have no doubt: that Shared Reading will endure, even if it is in a slightly different form during our current circumstances……..….which brings me back to the present, and to the wonder of the Shared Reading that I discovered all that time ago.
Shared Reading groups meet weekly. They consist of a Reader Leader, trained in The Reader’s ‘Read to Lead’ programme, and of a number of group members. They read aloud the text (of which everyone has a copy), pausing frequently to talk, in ordinary language, about what they are reading. There is no pressure for an individual to read aloud or to join in the conversation; some people prefer to listen, and that’s fine. But many people do like to read, and many very often share memories, or feelings, or thoughts in a spontaneous way, sometimes surprising themselves as they hear their own voices in the room. Shared Reading is for everyone: people who don’t usually read, the most avid or adventurous of readers, and those who can’t read. Through the literature, people discover and connect with their own thoughts and build meaningful connections with each other in an open, inclusive and non-judgmental environment, reading a range of great novels, short stories and poems.
It sounds simple. It is. But the model and its ethos are particular, and the effects are profound. I have seen them first hand in all sorts of settings: in hospitals, prisons and care homes, in libraries, community centres, homeless hostels and cafes.
Take a look at some Reader stories of the impact of Shared Reading here: https://www.thereader.org.uk/what-we-do/reader-stories/.
Research, which can be found on The Reader website, shows that Shared Reading improves wellbeing, reduces isolation and strengthens communities. It is not unusual to hear someone describe the group as ‘a lifeline’ or ‘the highlight of my week’.
No wonder I have been missing my weekly sessions! For though, of course I still enjoy reading on my own, privately, in my head – whatever that sort of reading is called – it does not offer the richness of the shared experience.
Fortunately, it is still doable even in this lockdown situation. Though some people are in lockdown alone, I know many who are reading aloud together on the phone or over Zoom, and some are doing it at home with family members, with housemates or with a partner. My son and I had already started reading David Copperfield together back in January, and it has been a real pleasure to have the novel to focus on over the past few weeks. We take it in turns to read a chunk, pausing often to consider what is going on, or just how many of the characters remind us of people we know (!), and so many of the passages have simply stopped us in our tracks, resonating deeply with one or other – or both – of us, making us linger, to explore just what that resonance might be.
Our choice of book to read next is dependent, at the moment, upon there being two copies on my bookshelf – so a bit limited! But, if you and your reading partner have access to eBooks, then it’s less of a problem, of course. And there are plenty of short stories, and poems online at sites such as: https://www.poemhunter.com/; https://www.newyorker.com/fiction-and-poetry; https://classicshorts.com/. Then last, but certainly not least, The Reader Magazine, as well as containing interesting articles, interviews and reading recommendations, is also great source of poetry, short stories and extracts for private or shared reading.
Another way of trying this different kind of reading experience I have been describing, is by heading to The Reader’s Facebook page to try out a live stream version of it – not quite the same experience, of course, as group members can only comment through messages on the ‘chat’, but you will be led through a poem by a Reader Leader, and the session provides a wonderful oasis in the middle of the day during these long weeks. These events take place at 1pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And you’ll find lots of other resources and new initiatives on offer at ‘The Reader at Home’ webpage (https://www.thereader.org.uk/get-involved/the-reader-at-home/ ).
As I come to the end of this rather rambling path charting my own discovery of The Reader, briefly introducing you to the organisation and its Shared Reading model, and touching on some of the benefits for those who take part, I hope I may have whetted your appetite to know more. If so, then do browse the pages of the website; read Blake Morrison’s ‘The Reading Cure’; watch this short video for a further insight into our work and maybe order a copy of Issue 71 of The Reader Magazine and be tempted to subscribe.
And finally, why not register your interest with The Reader? You can do so on the website. How wonderful it would be, as we emerge from these isolating times, to build on, and grow the Shared Reading community we already have here in Wokingham, and to become an even bigger part of the Reading Revolution. I look forward to it
Note from Heather Dyson
Before Library closures we were running three weekly groups meeting at Wokingham Library, two open the public and one with a particular emphasis on mental health. We also had an open group meeting at Lower Earley Library once a month and one meeting once a week at a community venue in Finchampstead. At the time of writing it is not known when or how we will be able to reconvene these groups but if you would like to be kept up to date about groups meeting in libraries please email firstname.lastname@example.org