Sergio Dogliani, Director of the Idea Store in Tower Hamlets, London, was one of the attendees at our national conference earlier this month. Although Sergio already works closely with The Reader Organisation, he was moved to write a blog about his experiences that day for the Italian Faber Blog on Il Sole 24 Ore. For those of you who don’t speak Italian, we have translated his words below:
Do you remember the first time you were ever moved to tears at a conference? Have you ever gotten goose bumps when listening to a speaker at a talk? What, it’s never happened to you? Ah, I thought so. Me neither, until yesterday. The paths that my job takes me along often bring me to unexplored territory, like the conference I attended yesterday, Reading to Live Well, organised by The Reader Organisation at the British Library – a unique experience.
But what is The Reader Organisation? I quote the description from the introductory notes by Jane Davis, the director:
“For those of you who don’t know what work we do, today will give you an idea of how we work, how we conduct research in the area of reading and how we develop our projects. It’s difficult to explain the experience of the Get into Reading project, but I’ll try to in these few lines: The goal of Get Into Reading is to give to people of any ability the joy of reading, so that they can take pleasure out of reading, at the same time participating in a sort of collective experience. Our model is based on groups of people (from 2 to 12), who get together to read stories, novels and poems every week, out loud, together. Reading out loud is taken in turns by our staff and the participants, if they want, as a group. When there are natural pauses in the reading, the participants are encouraged to reflect on what they have just read and to express their personal feelings regarding what they’ve just read. The key elements are: the literature, reading out loud and sharing a collective experience. We have 60 staff and 80 volunteers that bring books and poems to a variety of places: hospitals, prisons, supermarkets, schools, outpatients’ clinics, libraries, day centres, nursing homes, universities and dormitories, creating an environment which is stimulating and welcoming, offering to our participants – in an informal context without any pressure – a sense of stability, support and pure pleasure.”
At the Idea Store we have been working with The Reader Organisation for three years, and from last September we have been sponsoring a Reader-in-Residence (professional reader, part time, £17k p.a.), who in the course of the last few months has facilitated the creation of six groups in our centres, working with our personnel and offering support. The groups, which we call The Book Break here, but in other places are known by different names, like Feeling Better with a Book, are very diverse from other reading groups, where you usually choose a book to read and are given a month to do it and then get together to discuss it. The phenomenon of reading groups has become widespread in Great Britain over the last few years: typically you meet in the evenings, and the places where you can meet are the pub, cafés, libraries or even in the living room of one of the participants. We have eight of these groups, which tend to attract passionate readers from the public. The Book Break, on the other hand, which is held daily, attracts a very different selection of the public, usually people with a form of mental illness or people who are slowly returning to more of a social life after a period of depression and isolation.
Naturally, I arrived at the conference already knowing a bit about what The Reader Organisation does, but I have to say that I was extremely inspired by what I saw and heard. The day, organised in a very effective manner, alternated between a very collective and intelligent portion in the auditorium, and seats for smaller groups in separate rooms. It’s rare, in a conference, to find that all the speakers are so highly regarded, usually you’re lucky if there are just two or three, even yesterday it was the same: eight professors from The University of Liverpool who presented their research on the effects of reading on wellbeing with the title: “Reading Groups: from practice to theory”: The facilitators were also outstanding at the mini-seminars, entitled: “Why Shared Reading works in In-Patient Mental Healthcare Settings”: or “Why Shared Reading Works for People Living with Dementia”: and then “Literature and Children’s Wellbeing”: and lastly “Why Shared Reading Works in Criminal Justice Settings.”
Jonathan Rose (an author of an important book about the history of the intellectual life of the British working class) was very interesting, and he gave us a preview of his next book: a text that analyses the influence of reading on Churchill, demonstrating that the famous British statesman, an avid reader of works of fiction, often found inspiration in reading novels before making important decisions. To finish, Doctor Iona Heath, a true inspiration, who talked to us about the campaign she is leading to convince her medical colleagues (that tend to only read scientific journals) to take lessons from the great authors and poets, whose works contribute to a greater understanding of us human beings, something which is very important for a doctor to be aware of.
Despite the calibre of these speakers, the people who really moved me and gave me goose bumps were the ordinary people who deliver this work day-in and day-out, with their triumphant stories of reluctant readers who, thanks to the work of The Reader Organisation, became enthusiastic readers; stories of sick people who, thanks to reading, regained their health; or of young people who were raised in extremely difficult family circumstances that managed to escape and come out stronger and more prepared for their lives ahead, in a large part thanks to reading.
The Reader Organisation defines its mission in a very simple way: Revolutionise reading. Having said this, despite their undeniable commitment, even The Reader Organisation has difficulty in having a minimum impact on reality in the UK, which has a desperate need for their work, for the simple fact that they lack the necessary funding. Some ASLs around Liverpool (where The Reader Organisation is based) and here in other parts of the UK, realise the value of the work they do, and are prepared to invest adequate resources, but by far the majority of people in this country do not currently have an awareness that a serious investment in reading brings about huge benefits of wellbeing that affect the whole community for the better. You don’t need to be a genius to work it out: with the money that an ASL spends to cure even a single person who has been afflicted with a mental illness in the course of their lifetime, you could set up around a hundred groups like The Book Break. Doctors and medical professionals have always said that prevention is better than a cure – wouldn’t it be great if the Ministry of Health (MoH), together with the Ministry of Culture (MoC), worked together, and began to understand that reading is the cure to many ailments and problems?