Why Reading Matters

If you missed Why Reading Matters on BBC Four on Monday, you’re not too late to catch it: the programme is available to watch on BBC iplayer for the next five days.

The documentary, about the incredible power that reading unlocks in the brain,  features Philip Davis, editor of The Reader magazine, investigating the ‘Shakespeared Brain’ – how the shapes of Shakespeare’s lines and sentences effect our minds – and The Reader Organisation’s pioneering outreach project Get Into Reading.

London Reading and Health Event

The Reading Cure: A Conversation
Literature: Medicine Chest of the Soul

On Wednesday 14th January, The Reader Organisation and The Lancet hosted an event at the Wellcome Collection, London to open up a discussion about the relationship between reading and health. You can read about the event, see the photographs and download an audio recording on our website.

We have had some post-event thoughts and feel that we need to discuss the importance of reading aloud further.

“A difficulty is a light”, Valéry.

We can’t stress enough how important the reading aloud aspect of Get Into Reading is!

When a book, or poem, is read aloud, it comes to life as a physical presence in the group. This coming to life allows people to engage with the text more readily: it is opened up and shared. Even if the text is difficult or not everyone in the group decides to read aloud, everyone is together on the same page, at the same time and assisting one another to get through it. This makes the experience not only a social one but it also turns a scary challenge into an enjoyable, shared one.

We would like to discuss this further – we are in the process of setting up a wiki for this purpose, we’ll notify you when this is up and running – and hope that within the next few months we will be able to host a further seminar specifically on the subject of reading aloud and its importance for health and wellbeing.

Please let us know if this would be of interest to you. If there are any further issues around reading and health that you would like to see investigated in greater depth, we would welcome your suggestions for other seminars in the future.

Interested in becoming a Get Into Reading facilitator? Visit our Read to Lead Training pages to find out how.

Event Review: Liverpool Readers’ Day

The Readers’ Day, presented by The Reader Organisation and Liverpool Libraries, centred around three open audience events – a conversation with Frank Cottrell-Boyce and a conversation with Beryl Bainbridge led respectively by Jane Davis, as well as a very lively session when our two celebrated Liverpool authors conversed with each other about how their own experiences and memories of their home city may have influenced their writing in different ways and at different levels.

The day’s programme also included two lots of workshops. In the morning, readers had the choice to read and discuss Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s thought-provoking short story ‘Accelerate’, enjoy a discussion group on poems about work during the twentieth century, or participate in a reading session which took as its theme no other than the popular series Mersey Minis. In the afternoon, the range of choice remained just as diverse and exciting, with workshops being offered on the stories of city seafarers (a session led by no other than Frank senior), a reading group where people were asked to bring along with them poems that they would like to have with then if they were to fall victims to that unfortunate fate of being shipwrecked, and last but by no means least, the Readers’ Surgery, with Jane Davis, Angie Macmillan, the poet Rebecca Goss, and myself all trying to provide searching readers with a poem or a novel that would on some level act as a response to their particular needs or interests.

I was very pleased to see several of our Get Into Reading members on the day and all very keen to take the opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves. One of the most positive things that resulted from the day was that it has clearly made more people aware of Central Library and also encouraged more people to come into this vast public space. At the end of the day, one lady came up to me and said, ‘Do you know, I’m ashamed to say this, but I’ve never been in this library before – I never even knew it existed! And isn’t it lovely! I will be coming back here again – not just to borrow books mind you, but because I want to be able to walk round this room again (the Picton Library) – it really is beautiful!’

So once again, The Reader Organisation provides local people with a thoroughly enjoyably literary event that is relaxed and inclusive, informal and uplifting. Let’s hope that we can hold more of them at Central Library in future!

Posted by Clare Williams

Book at Breakfast 2008: Clare Allan

As part of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival, The Reader Organisation hosted two free and fabulous ‘Book at Breakfast’ events held on Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd November, at BBC Radio Merseyside. This year, we were delighted to be working with award-winning writers Clare Allan and Mark Haddon

The turn-out on Saturday morning was fantastic! Once everyone had settled with coffee, croissants, and new acquaintances, Jane Davis kicked things off with an introductory chat before Clare read out an extract from her novel Poppy Shakespeare, which acted as the basis for group discussion about her work.   

After the informal group discussions, Book at Breakfasters had the opportunity to direct any questions or thoughts about the novel to Clare Allan: both audience questions and Clare’s answers providing more thought-provoking possibilities for discussion.  

Those attending were extremely impressed with what the morning had to offer, with most compliments focussing on the fact that the event ‘takes people out of their everyday lives to engage with stimulating discussions’; ‘makes people aware of mental health issues’; and, simply, how they were ‘inspired’, both by Clare Allan and by the lively discussions her presence initiated. 

A big thank-you to Clare for being part of our event, her honesty and good humour made for a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating breakfast. Thanks also to all those who attended: you helped to ensure the morning was the huge success it turned out to be.

Recommended Reads: Dragonfire by William S. Cohen

Continuing our series of recommendations from inmates of Walton Prison, here is Martin’s take on a thriller written by the former US Secretary of Defense, William S. Cohen.


by William S. Cohen.

I cannot praise this book enough. When I first got it, I thought that it would just help pass the time – boy, was I wrong.

The book opens with the American Secretary of Defence being assassinated. The main character, Michael Santini, current Wall Street banker, former US Senator and Vietnam POW, is rapidly handed the keys to the most powerful military office in the world. The action kicks in and it is a race against time to stop World War Three – threats coming from militia thinking Uncle Sam is giving the good American people the middle finger, to Russia Mafia, to terrorists and ‘rogue nations’.

The level of detail in this book is truly mind-blowing. The author quite knows his material, from the layout of the inner echelons of the Pentagon to the insanely annoying military and political acronyms they throw out like party favours.

I think the main character, Michael Santini, is a work of art; you come to understand his likes and dislikes, often pre-empting the author. He is a no-nonsense man banging his head against the wall that is American politics.

What I like is that William Cohen is not afraid to paint a realistic picture of America, the way the various intelligence chiefs go about petty one-upmanship, showing that if they pooled their resources a lot more might get done quicker and more effectively. He also shows how the country uses the threat of economic and military sanctions to bully other nations.

The author in addition portrays people who truly believe in what the United States stands for: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I feel he is saying that America’s position as the only remaining superpower is under threat from a rapidly emerging China, a sentiment I share.

Dragon Fire presents a terrifying series of events that will leave readers wiping their brows. Written by anyone else, it would remain firmly in the realm of fiction. But William Cohen leaves you wondering exactly what Joe Public isn’t being told in the interests of national security.

A definite must read.

Posted by Martin

Recommended Reads: The Guv’nor Tapes by Lenny Mclean

Continuing our series of reading from the inmates of Walton prison, Anthony recommends this tale of a hard man with a heart of gold.

The Guv’nor Tapes (John Blake, 2007)

Lenny Maclean and Peter Gerard

This book is one of those books that you can’t put down. Bareknuckle fighter Lenny McLean was Britain’s hardest man. There have been many times when his back was against the wall and he has always come out on top. He once went up against eighteen men on his own. Nine ended up on the floor and nine ran away. He has been shot twice and stabbed once, which almost cost him his leg, but he’s never been put down and he always made it to hospital on his own two feet. He has fought the hardest men around and won, like Roy ‘Pretty Boy’ Shaw*.He even went to New York and beat the toughest man the Mafia could find.

What I respect about Lenny is the fact that he’s not a bully, he won’t hurt weak people and he wouldn’t let it happen in front of him. Also this is a man who loves his wife and kids very much and has always looked after them properly.

There was only one downside to the book and that is the beginning where he talks about his childhood. How he survived it, I will never know. His stepfather beat him black and blue from the age of five and it knocked me sick. Maybe if he hadn’t had such a bad childhood he would not have ended up being such a hard bastard.

Lenny went through all this and lived, but then something he could not beat killed him – cancer. Lenny McLean died in 1998. God bless him.

Posted by Anthony

* Roy Shaw actually called himself Roy ‘Mean Machine’ Shaw, but there was no love lost between these two.

Recommended Reads: Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind

Last week Wendy Kay introduced the reading group from Walton prison. Here is the first in a series of book reviews by members of the group.

Wizard’s First Rule (1995)

by Terry Goodkind

The book opens with a young man called Richard Cypher, a woods guide living in the forests of Westland. One day he is walking by a ravine when he encounters a young woman under attack by four large armed men. He does the chivalrous thing and helps her fend off three of the men; the fourth is mysteriously despatched by the young woman. She reveals that her name is Kahlan Ahmnell; she crossed the boundary to find the great wizard who created the magical boundary to stop the evil Darken Rahl.

From the outset, this book looks like one of those ‘nice’ books that occasionally comes along where nobody swears and people faint rather than get killed, but you could not be more wrong. There is blood and guts aplenty and torture scenes that made even me wince in sympathy.

This is an explosive series and the first book sets the pace for the entire series. The level of detail is awesome and the locations are inspired. The author jampacks detail into just shy of eight hundred pages, not too much but enough to keep you wanting more. The crowning feature is the characters, from the stout-hearted Richard to the fierce and passionate Kahlan; from the wonderfully eccentric Zedd to the devilishly handsome and utterly despicable Darken Rahl, who is possibly the most evil character I have ever read. I wonder what is lurking in the author’s mind when he creates such characters.

Wizard’s First Rule is a benchmark in the Fantasy genre. It had me hooked from beginning to end. If there is one book you should read if you are a Fantasy fan, it should be this – Tolkien be damned, long live Goodkind!

Posted by Martin

Get Into Reading Goes to Prison

Coming up over the next week or two we’re going to be featuring book recommendations from the Get Into Reading reading group at HM Prison Liverpool, known locally as Walton Prison. Here Wendy Kay describes her first contact with the prison and the inspiration behind the prison reading group.

The initial contact with Walton prison was through Liverpool Reads.  The idea was that Liverpool Reads would supply a number of copies of Tamar and Keeper by Mal Peet for prisoners to read. Mal Peet then agreed to come and meet a number of reading groups who had read the books and have a question and answer session. Walton prison were keen to have Mal there and we really didn’t know what to expect in terms of numbers and interest.

We arrived at the prison and were shown to a room where approximately 40 men were sitting patiently waiting for us (we were 30 minutes late due to weather and security checks). From a personal perspective it was amazing the way that Mal talked about the novel and responded to incredibly perceptive questions about how and why he wrote, where he got his ideas and how much research was needed. Mal said it was one of the best sessions he had taken part in.

On the way out of the prison the prison librarian Stephen Jones and Carol Booth showed us the prison library. It’s a good facility, well used and with a selection of titles as wide as any public library. I noticed they had these little cards dotted around the library – like the things you see in Waterstones and Borders with a book recommendation on. It seemed as though the people who read the books there had views that could be shared with an audience wide of the prison and that’s why I asked if we could use them on the blog.

Posted by Wendy Kay



The Reader Magazine issue 31 is now available. Read more about it here.

More Funding Needed for Dementia Services

Katie Peters, a Project Worker for Get Into Reading, working with Mersey Care NHS Trust and dementia patients writes:

A new King’s Fund report presents a comprehensive long-term view of mental health services and warns the government that expanding demand will require sustained funding increases. The ageing population in the U.K. means that the number of people suffering from dementia is estimated to rise from 582,000 now to just under a million by 2026.  Since November 2006, The Reader Organisation has been delivering reading group sessions and one to one reading sessions with dementia patients at a care home on Merseyside. The results have been astounding. We hope that today’s news will strengthen our case for securing funding to research the effects of this work so that we can develop it and make it part of the care package offered to people suffering from dementia in the years to come.

More on this story from the BBC and from The Guardian.

More from on reading and dementia here.

Literature of Depression

In 2005 Monica Janssens was diagnosed with panic disorder and severe depression and admitted to the Priory Hospital. Monica has written a novel inspired by her experience and about the stigma that still attaches to depression. Here she explains how reading helped in her recovery.

“O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper: I would not be mad.”

–William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I, Scene V.

In the midst of a severe depressive attack it takes a Herculean effort to read the label on an anti-depressant bottle, let alone absorb the page of a book and remember what you’ve just read. But that doesn’t mean literature doesn’t have a place in the lives of the mentally ill. From both experience and observation, I would argue the contrary and, judging from the 7,700 titles listed by Amazon under “Depression”, I’m not alone. The panic attack which landed me in the Priory in the summer of 2005 was indescribably painful. For some peculiar reason King Lear (an old favourite) came into my mind and only by going to bed with the book, and reciting some of the verse, could I finally cry myself to sleep.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. If you’re feeling desperate and suicidal, reading King Lear is hardly going to cheer you up. But expecting literature (no matter how powerful) to alleviate depression when it’s in full swing is unrealistic. What literature can do, however, is make us feel less alone. That counts for a lot because depression is isolating and it’s the isolation which, more than any other single factor, leads to suicide; curiously, during both world wars suicide rates in England fell dramatically.

The concept of depression was formulated less than a hundred years ago, yet it’s interesting that some of the best literature describing the condition was written before it was recognized. Take Keats’s poetry. If Keats had been alive today he would probably have been diagnosed with depression: nobody can come up with “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow/And leaden-eyed despairs” and not be a sufferer. Keats, of course, was a Romantic. The Romantics were influenced by Goethe, whose semi-autobiographical tale The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) ended in a suicide and supposedly led to 2,000 readers doing the same thing. At university I took Russian Literature in Translation as an ancillary to my English degree, which may have been a sign of my depressive leanings. The Russians have a reputation for producing melancholic literature of the highest order; it seems deeply ingrained in their psyche. Chekov’s The Seagull ends in suicide, as does Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Both works were thought to be influenced by Hamlet–a portrayal of the archetypal, inward-looking depressive if ever there was one–in which Shakespeare, like Dostoevsky, focuses in painstaking detail on the central character’s mental anguish. Modern English writers take a more understated approach to describing depression. Graham Greene’s chief protagonists are invariably tortured souls with self-destructive tendencies (The Power and the Glory, The Quiet American, The Heart of the Matter), while the alcoholic Jean Rhys was haunted by Mr Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre and wrote a prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea, exploring the causes of her derangement.

Nowadays, the literature of depression is divided into two main categories: self-help books and either confessionals or autobiographically-based novels. Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar falls into the second camp and is a rewarding read, but if the act of writing is cathartic it was not cathartic enough to prevent Plath committing suicide. The same is true, of course, of Virginia Woolf who describes so tenderly in Mrs Dalloway the horrors of shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

I’m not sure what the depression self-book market is worth, though judging by the number of titles available it must be a lot. For the first six weeks of my therapy I couldn’t read even half a book and this is where self-help books score: you can dip in and out of them, take it one step at a time. You don’t always have to start at the beginning, either. The one that worked for me is Tim Cantopher’s Depressive Illness: The Curse of The Strong because it seemed to know exactly how I was feeling. It didn’t beat me up for it. In fact, it made me feel special–sensitive and responsible–because I had the wretched illness in the first place. I’d read a page a day, then re-read it the next day.

Part of my treatment involved creative writing classes. We’d have a picture to describe in a set time, then we’d each be invited to read it out. That was the nearest we got to shared reading, or, given our low concentration thresholds, any kind of reading. With the research being done on the therapeutic benefits of reading aloud, I believe there’s a strong case for making it more of a feature in rehabilitation and psychiatric hospitals.

By Monica Janssens