What reading the classics can do for Croydon

By - Wednesday 7th January, 2015

Fiona Magee explains how Croydon got involved in pioneering research on the real-life benefits of great literature

Two months ago, something new and intriguing touched-down in Croydon Library: The Reader Organisation. Reading books in a library? Big deal, you might think. But as its founder, Jane Davis MBE says: “This is not just reading. What we do changes, and sometimes saves, lives”.

So what exactly is The Reader Organisation (TRO)? Seventeen years after Jane Davis launched the scheme, it’s now an award-winning charitable social enterprise delivering hundreds of reading groups each week. It works with people suffering from mental health problems, the unemployed, people on probation and those experiencing social exclusion and isolation.

Jane explains that it was whilst she was teaching a literature course at the University of Liverpool that she was suddenly struck by the wonderful bond the group had forged – people sharing reading and talking, sometimes taking life seriously but, above all, really enjoying what each person brought to the group. Her realisation was that there must be many others, perhaps people who could not read, or had forgotten the pleasure of reading, who would relish the opportunity to share the same experience. She didn’t want it to be connected to sitting tests or writing essays –just reading and talking. As she says, “I wanted to take reading to all sorts of places.”

So that’s exactly what she did, setting up the first two groups for young mothers and adult learners in Birkenhead, who quickly told her: “This isn’t just reading – this is good for my health. You should be getting paid by the NHS!”

Great literature is full of the stuff that makes us human

Great literature is at the heart of the organisation – group members discover the joys of reading works by people such as Shakespeare, George Eliot and Wordsworth. The reason is quite simply that these are full of the stuff that makes us human, ready to be shared. So that’s what TRO does: it brings books to life. Here’s Jane again: “People need meaning and human connectedness just as they need air and water. That’s what we aim to give them with our reading groups.”

So what happens at a shared reading group? The first thing to stress is the informality. After tea and biscuits, the group leader (a TRO staff member) will read aloud whatever story or poem she/he has brought along that week – unlike many book-groups, everything is read aloud, with people encouraged to join in as much or as little as they want. You can choose to sit back and relax, or to share your thoughts and meet new people. This stimulating but non-pressured environment is crucial because, as Jane says, “Reading isn’t simply an individual pleasure (though always that) but, like food, can also be a deeply connecting social culture”. Everything about the groups is intended to bring about the ‘breakthrough moments’ when people discover their own responses to literature, connect with their own feelings and know their own stories.

I’ve found a real sense of community and belonging in my group

“Something happens to you in shared reading,” says Jane. “A sudden moment, a feeling of recognition, of seeing written down something you’ve had as a nameless feeling, and at that moment it takes some form in the visible world, so you can begin to know it. And there’s something so important about that – it’s a form of consciousness. Multiply that feeling by all the people who come to our weekly sessions – at least a thousand – and that’s a lot of change-making moments”.

But perhaps it’s best expressed by one of the participants: “I’ve found a real sense of community and belonging in my group. It has helped me to come out of isolation. I’ve really enjoyed discovering new/different books and poems I wouldn’t necessarily read on my own. It’s built my confidence and provides an important part of structuring my week”.

The reading group meets in Croydon Library’s Level 2 Training Room every Thursday from 10:15 to 11:45 am. Just turn up and join in – you don’t need copies of the books – everything is contained in hand-outs.

Croydon is part of TRO’s three-year research project

And now for the (optional) science bit!

Recent research has shown that attending a weekly shared reading group has a number of benefits, including increases in confidence, improved health and well-being, reduced stress, greater social skills and increased positivity about life. And to further understand and explore those effects, The Reader Organisation has developed a research partnership with CRILS – Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at Liverpool University, to examine the impact of shared reading. Thanks to funding from Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, a three-year research project has been established in the south London area, which is why TRO has brought this initiative to Croydon. Twelve shared reading groups will be established in different parts of the community – from dementia patients, through to primary-school children – including two open community groups, of which the group currently operating at Croydon Library is one. Each group will run for twenty-four weeks, with the results being analysed through questionnaires and interviews of the participants.

TRO is currently seeking clinicians or practitioners who work with physical health populations (especially chronic health conditions or chronic pain) interested in participating in the research project.

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Fiona Magee

Fiona Magee

Fiona Magee is a research assistant based at CRILS – Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society – which is part of Liverpool University and works in connection with the national charity and social enterprise The Reader Organisation (www.thereader.org.uk). Her background is in journalism – working for The Independent on Saturday and ...Sunday for 12 years. She now works in both Liverpool and London and lives with her family in Stroud.

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