This blog post is written by Gayle Whelan, Community Asset Research Assistant, Health and Wellbeing Partnership at Liverpool John Moores University, and author of ‘An evaluation of the social value of the Get Into Reading initiative on Wirral, Merseyside‘.
Following on from yesterday’s post about the social value of Get Into Reading, Gayle explains how her research into our shared reading groups led to her rediscovering reading for herself.
When I was younger I used to read a lot. At first it was around four Enid Blyton books a week and then as I progressed to secondary school it was the classics: Brontes, Dickens, Salinger, Angelou and Shakespeare, but there was also the other childhood must-reads from Michelle Magorian, Nina Bawden, and Peter Carey. I read throughout my A levels to break up the revision and I remember hiding Sillitoe’s Saturday Night Sunday Morning in between the covers of a revision text book in class until it slipped out and fell on the table for all to see. My English teacher didn’t seem to mind though. It was books that fed my career. Reading wasn’t enough and I had always wanted to write. From about the age of ten I was headstrong about being an author. This love of writing fuelled my first career as a journalist and now as a researcher evaluating projects and writing reports. And this is how I came to find out about Get into Reading.
I work as a Community Asset Research Assistant for the Applied Health and Wellbeing Partnership within the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University, evaluating the impact of projects and initiatives and the effect they have upon people’s health and wellbeing. Get into Reading was the first of these evaluations, using a social return on investment to analyse the impact that reading groups had on individuals and the wider community.
As part of this work I attended a reading group to understand more about group dynamics and to experience reading aloud for myself. As a researcher, I was very interested in the stories that many people told me: most had not previously had a love of books or literature, often felt isolated and socially excluded and sometimes did not have the confidence to speak up and give their opinion. Many had also experienced a range of health problems which had affected how they lived their lives. The group created a union which brought people together, all with something in common – a book or poem or short story. Each person gave something to the group, whether it was an insight into their understanding of the book, a personal experience or even just a relaxing voice to follow the words on the page. And during the session I was able to give a part of me to the group. Yes I did love reading as a child, but since having two children I had not even finished the book I started on my first maternity leave (The Suspicions of Mr Whicher). My excuse had been not enough time, or I was too tired.
Reading a section from Animal Farm to the reading group was the first time I had publicly read aloud from a book since Jane Eyre in A Level English, some years ago. It was also the first time I had picked up something new to read recreationally in maybe four years (I am excluding the back catalogue of Julia Donaldson books and the Disney classics that I read to my children). I really enjoyed the discussion with the reading group around Animal Farm and it really made me think. Without this group, many had told me they would be bored at home, not doing anything, and not talking to anyone. The reading group was not simply about books, but it was much, much more than that, it made people feel part of something, that their thoughts counted and it made them happy with something to look forward to each week. Personally, the group empowered me to go home and finish Whicher (which I did) and I have since read a few more books including Mhairi McFarlane’s You Had Me at Hello, written by a colleague who wrote with me in my journalism days. I have just started Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca and while it may take me a while to get through, when I read I remember why I used to be such a bookworm: the relaxation it brought to me, but something else, the satisfaction in finishing a book and the choice of what to pick to read next. Something more than that though, in the groups, I enjoyed the discussions with someone else who has read the same book – how the characters made me feel, what happened and how it made me feel. Get into Reading offers this on a weekly basis with people who become your friends. It’s social reading with social benefits and it makes you feel good. I may not be reading the classics I once used to, but I am enjoying reading again.
Read Gayle’s full report, ‘An evaluation of the social return of the Get Into Reading initiative in Wirral, Merseyside’ here.