By Chantel Baldry, Communications Intern (Events and Publications)
Elizabeth Day, a journalist for The Guardian, has been reading short stories aloud to a group of people for a month at the Simon Oldfield Gallery in London. Her reason for doing so? To restore the tradition of reading aloud and sharing stories with each other.
Elizabeth Day Reading at the Simon Oldfield gallery in London’s Mayfair. Photograph: Antonio Zazueta Olmos for the Observer
In her recent article in the Observer, Elizabeth recognises the increased appetite for being read aloud to, she states that revenue from downloaded audiobooks has risen by 32.7% since last year and she mentions our work here at The Reader Organisation. What strikes Elizabeth Day in the process of running her group, and what our Founder Jane Davis is quoted remarking upon in the article, is the intensity of the experience of shared reading. People share the experience of reading but in doing so, have their own personal inner response to the literature. Day remarks that there are few opportunities for people to engage in group reading without there being
“some sort of self-improving literary discussion”
In Elizabeth’s ‘storytelling’ sessions she required nothing of the sort. Day has been bowled over by the response to her group from attendees and those who wanted to become involved in such an endeavor, like Majestic Wine, who contributed free wine to the evenings. One attendee said
“What I liked about it was that this was an informal setting and a gentle, welcoming environment where my defences were down”
Jane Davis and our project workers at The Reader Organisation have been experiencing similar reactions to shared reading for the past ten years. Lesley Tinsley joined the reading group in Upstairs@88 in July 2009 when it was initially set up as part of a research study into reading and depression. Lesley is in her early 50s. She has learning disabilities and also suffers from depression and anxiety. On first joining the reading group at Upstairs@83 Lesley was rather shy and reluctant to talk at any great length or read aloud. After a few weeks however she began to volunteer to read aloud from the poems at the end of the session and as her confidence grew she felt confident enough to be able to meet the more challenging task of reading aloud for a sustained period from the denser text of the prose. The opportunity to read aloud in a supportive environment has proved extremely beneficial to Lesley. She says:
“When I first joined the reading group I thought people would laugh at me because I’ve got a learning disability. I didn’t want to read aloud at first in case they’d laugh. But it’s not like that. Now I have a chance to read aloud and know that no one will laugh.”
Click here to read Lesley’s full testimony and to read the testimonies of other members of our shared reading groups.
Elizabeth, explains that what was happening in her groups was like ‘tapping’ into a long forgotten tradition, oral storytelling as entertainment and a means of cementing community bonds. Contributors to the article from the Universities of Newcastle and Oxford remark that reading aloud and listening was once about being sociable and being part of a community but it was also a a type of dramatic entertainment.
This is where the process of ‘storytelling’ and ‘shared reading’ starts to differ according to Jane Davis, in her response to Elizabeth’s article. Although similar reactions have been experienced in both Elizabeth Day’s group and groups run by The Reader Organisation, Jane explains that in Elizabeth’s group there appears to be a strong performative element with Day reading to the attendees. The Reader Organisation’s ‘Get Into Reading’ reading groups try to be about the group as a whole sharing the experience of reading aloud. Group members are encouraged to actively take part in reading aloud and are given the opportunity to share any thoughts that they might have about the literary work or their own experiences. Jane says
“Oddly, the power of a tentative human voice, uncertain about it’s ability to read what is written, can often make the experience of sharing more, not less, powerful.”
Elizabeth’s recognition of the need for the shared experience of reading literature aloud is brilliant because it helps us here, at The Reader Organisation to spread the reading revolution and the belief that books should be at the very heart of life.