Monday, 23 November 2009
A Reading Revolution - Anne Rooney
I hope I manage to get this post uploaded – I’m in the wilds of the Wirral (I think), where I’ve been sent for a week to learn how to read. Huh? Not quite. I’m here with eighteen other past and present RLF (Royal Literary Fund) fellows to become accredited ‘reading facilitators’. The course, run by The Reading Organisation, aims to create a ‘reading revolution’ in the country, getting everyone – really everyone -reading. We’ve only had the Sunday afternoon session so far, so it’s too early to say how it’s going to go.
TRO facilitators set up reading groups – but not as we know them. Instead of each person reading the book at home and coming to discuss it, the participants read the book aloud together and discuss any issues (personal, literary, cultural) as they emerge. It takes months to read a long text in two-hour chunks, especially stopping for discussion whenever anyone has something to say. Each session ends with a poem, which they also discuss. It is all about personal response – there is no aim to teach, no literary theory, no right or wrong responses. It’s the kind of reading that writers expect and want for their work, not the kind university departments necessarily encourage.
The members of a group generally have something in common. They may be single mothers, elderly people with dementia, offenders in prison, people with mental health problems… They may also be just people who feel like it.
We’ve already heard from participants, and the stories of other participants. One woman I spoke to so loves her Get Into Reading group that she uses her annual leave to take two hours off every Thursday afternoon so that she can go. She is 34. She said that for a year she turned up and said nothing, and the group welcomed her presence. Finally, she began to take part in readings and flourished. She had been suffering anxiety attacks and was painfully shy, and prone to depression but this looked like an unthreatening social activity to get her out of the house. She no longer has anxiety attacks and seemed full of confidence. Yesterday, she spoke to a room full of strangers, nattering on without stopping. She credited the reading group with the transformation. Other people have coped with bereavement, or difficult children, or recognized their own problems and experiences reflected in literature. There was the woman who realized her husband was Iago, and the violent criminal who would discuss Heathcliff’s behaviour. So far it’s sounding rather like therapy, but the organizers insist that it isn’t. The object, they say, is to enable people to use literature as a tool in their lives, to help them make sense of their experiences and to give them a pleasurable focus to the week. It seems to work.
Most of this is incredibly obvious, of course, and we all do it already. My last post here was about how I turned to books during a terrible (ongoing) time. I buy books for my daughters that relate to or reflect their current concerns and leave them lying around where they may be picked up and read, perhaps helpfully. But many people don’t know books can provide that kind of comfort, endorsement, refuge and lifeline. TRO aims to show them that – and to show them the pleasure reading can bring. There are no concessions: the first text a group tackles might be short, but then it’s straight into the classics. They tackle Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Milton – anything and everything. TRO believes that people are not necessarily scared of hard texts, but that they often feel these are reserved for the intellectual elite and are pleased to be allowed to reclaim them. If that’s what it’s about – giving literature back to the people for whom it was written – I shall be proud to be involved.
Before we came, we had to choose ten poems we could use with a reading group, but knew nothing about the make-up of groups or the way the system worked. (The photo is of my poem-choosing session, on Saturday night.) Here, there is flaky wifi, poor mobile signal, no decent coffee (aaargh!), towels like rags and rooms the size of prison cells. There are no shops, no post office, no pub (but there is a bar), no time off – just us and the books. There are quite a few other children’s writers here – some names you would certainly recognize, but I haven’t asked their permission to reveal their whereabouts so I won’t name them (own up in the comments if you like!). One gave a little shriek of joy when she saw her own book listed in TRO’s recommended books for juvenile groups. We are the first group of professional writers TRO has ever trained, so it will be interesting for all of us. I’ll give an update after the week, but just now I have to grab some rubbish coffee go and learn how to read all over again…