Open Book with Marilynne Robinson – and The Reader Organisation

Marilynne Robinson speaking at our 'Reading for Wellbeing' conference in 2011
Marilynne Robinson speaking at our ‘Reading for Wellbeing’ conference in 2011

This week’s edition of Open Book on BBC Radio 4 was a treat for literature lovers, featuring an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson about her new novel Lila, the long anticipated third book in her bestselling series set in the fictional town of Gilead (following on from Gilead and Home). Certainly many of us at The Reader Organisation are big fans of Marilynne Robinson and her work, and became even more so when she joined us as a guest speaker at our second ever Conference in New Brighton in 2011, with some lucky enough to spend an evening in the company of the author at Blackburne House beforehand.

We were proud to stand alongside Marilynne again as the programme also included a special feature on the ‘reading oasis’ that can be found at Calderstones Mansion House. Earlier in the year Open Book visited Calderstones, guided by our Founder and Director Jane Davis, to witness some shared reading in action and see just how we are already starting to build an International Centre for Reading with our group members from the local community and beyond. You can listen to Calderstones on Open Book here (approx 11 minutes 52 seconds in):

The feature included input from Professor Rhiannon Corcoran from University of Liverpool who talks about her special interest in the practice of shared reading and one of our trustees Dr Shyamal Mukherjee, Medical Director of NHS Wirral, identifying the benefits shared reading can provide to people’s health and wellbeing, as well as contributing to increased social interaction on a unique and deeply emotional scale.

Some of our reading group members could also be heard on the programme, discussing the in and outs of Dombey and Son as well as enjoying our very popular babies, toddlers and parents/carers reading group Tiny Reads. There can’t be too many other Grade II listed buildings in the country where you would find Dickens being read doors along from The Gruffalo on a Friday morning!

Reading with tots right up to the young at heart is exactly what we want to do at Calderstones – encouraging everyone to come through the doors to enjoy the pure pleasure of reading, as well as to connect with those around them in what will be a true community hub with great literature at its heart. Including gallery and events spaces, a crammed calendar for the whole family to enjoy and a cafe full of tasty treats, we’re always developing at Calderstones:

Catch up with Open Book on the BBC Radio 4 website, or you can listen again by tuning into BBC Radio 4 this Thursday 20th November at 3.30pm. Listen to the Calderstones feature on its own by heading here:

‘A life changing business’: Stephen Fry on reading aloud

dementia 2The art of reading aloud was explored by Stephen Fry in a fascinating programme on BBC Radio 4 yesterday – and Founder and Director of The Reader Organisation Jane Davis along with some of our Readers in Liverpool were featured speaking about the power and special quality of reading aloud.

In Greek and Roman times, reading silently was frowned upon – the skill of reading aloud was much prized amongst the finest in society and the Romans could even be described as the predecessors of shared reading, gathering to read aloud in groups. Fry’s English Delight took listeners on a journey through the history of reading aloud, which amongst other gems told us that for over a third of the 21 centuries that have passed reading aloud was the most common form of reading and that authors such as Tennyson, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen were particular fans of reading aloud: Austen would ‘road test’ the drafts of her novels, including Pride and Prejudice, by reading and having her family reading them aloud.

The Reader Organisation connects people with great literature and through reading aloud in our regular shared reading groups in the UK, and the programme visited us at one of our groups in Liverpool while they read Silas Marner by George Eliot. Readers including Damian, who went for years with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and Louise, who has Asperger’s syndrome, spoke about how reading aloud has affected them, using terms such as ‘addictive’ and referring to the stories and poems that are read as ‘a bright light shining in the darkness’. When the words of great writers are read aloud we are not only attuned to their beauty but are exposed to the value of great minds and thinking, which can act to make us emotionally stronger.

Woman laughing hystericallyThe question of whether people might be put off by the apparent performative nature of reading aloud is something dismissed in our shared reading groups, as the informal and relaxed atmosphere allows people to choose to read only if they want to, letting people be themselves. As Jane says, reading aloud is one of the most democratic forms of communication, with everybody able to get something out of it.

The programme also featured speakers including Professor John Mullan of University College, London, who provided insights into the greats of literature and their skills of reading aloud – giving even experts in the field something to learn. 10 year old Ben, who started and rounded off the programme, spoke about how he thinks it’s every parent’s duty to read aloud to their children – a reader to watch for the future! Stephen Fry himself was in praise of the art, saying:

“Reading aloud and being read to can be a deeply affecting, life changing business.”

With readers like Damian and Louise as well as many more benefitting from the power of reading aloud, we can attest to this.

If you missed the broadcast of Fry’s English Delight you can listen again on the website:

Fry’s English Delight

stephen fry“I’ve always known that reading aloud is one of the paths to greater happiness in life…reading aloud isn’t medicine to be swallowed to make one feel better. It’s pleasure. Pure pleasure.”

Actor, broadcaster and beloved figure of British culture Stephen Fry is a keen supporter of the art of reading aloud (given the quote above straight from the man himself) and you’ll hear him take a closer insight at the practice on his latest radio programme – featuring input from some of our Readers.

Fry’s English Delight is currently in its seventh series on BBC Radio 4 (Mondays), exploring the ‘highways and byways’ of the English language. In the next episode, Reading Aloud comes under the spotlight as Stephen investigates the art from Roman times right up to the present day.

We’re delighted to be featured in the episode, to be broadcast on Monday 18th August at 9am (repeated at 9.30pm the same day), with some of our reading group members who were recorded as part of one of our groups at Calderstones Mansion House talking about the importance of reading aloud and what it means to them.

If you’re a lover of the English language as well as literature, it’s an unmissable series – previous episodes have already covered the mysterious language of magic and the punishing business of proper nouns and capital letters.

You can listen in and find out more about Fry’s English Delight on the Radio 4 website:

And don’t forget to make a date in your diary for Monday 18th August!

Head to the ‘Reading With Us’ page of our website for a full list of all of our current open shared reading groups running around the country:

Music from the Goblin Market

The poetry of Christina Rossetti is a favourite at The Reader Organisation, with her work being featured in our Minted and Poems to Take Home anthologies and right here on The Reader Online. Over the years, many of her poems have also been read aloud in our Get Into Reading groups, including extracts from Goblin Market – one of her most famous works, published in 1862. The narrative poem tells the story of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, who are drawn from their home by the call of goblin merchants, selling fruits of many kinds and colours:

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:

While one of the sisters refrains, the other gives into the goblins’ temptation and a cautionary tale unfolds…

SONY DSCA new adaptation of Goblin Market has been put together and performed this summer by the award-winning Liverpool University Drama Society, featuring expressive movement, original poetry and a specially composed musical soundtrack – half of the proceeds of which are very kindly being donated to The Reader Organisation to help support our outreach work, allowing more people to enjoy the great words of Rossetti in future.

Goblin Market previewed at the Kazimier Gardens in Liverpool in July, and recently played to thrilled audiences at a week-long stint at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Composer and musician Alex Cottrell, who composed the soundtrack along with Dr Sarah Peverley from University of Liverpool, takes us through how he came to be involved in the production and the music-making process:

“Director Zoe Wiles made it clear from the beginning that she wanted the play to give an immersive experience, to set it amongst the audience as much as the stage itself. So that got me thinking that the soundtrack should possess an atmospheric quality, something that should bring it away from resting on top of the performance as mere mood music. By tapping on instruments, sliding fingers up and down strings, I tried to create an eerie sense of things skittering in the undergrowth of Goblin Market’s forest setting. These ‘soundscapes’ are prevalent throughout the whole play, often as a backdrop to indicate changes in setting or whilst other music plays.

Then we dealt with the story’s Goblin/Girls binary, representing them with distinct instruments and timbres, but still making them feel related or transformative of one another somehow. For the Girls it was the harp – pretty and almost innocent sounding. Many of the harp parts were written by Sarah Peverley (who also performed them all), including the ‘main theme’ which bookends the play. There’s also a harp-led Lullaby that the girls sing after the Goblins seduce Laura with their fruits – they both did an excellent job, particularly Beth (Lizzie) who has no formal training and had to do harmonies throughout.

For the Goblins it was the Balalaika – a Russian folk guitar giving a harsher, more tinny sound. When it’s played in that fast strumming style (some might remember it from Doctor Zhivago) it seems to quiver and can be quite unsettling with the right chords. It’s heard almost every time the Goblins appear and after a while starts to act as an alarm that they’re coming.

Finally there’s the dream sequence, where we reversed the recording of the Lullaby and had it act as part of an ‘echo’ in Laura’s dream; if you listen carefully you might recognise it.

The soundtrack album has 9 tracks on it, all professionally recorded for the Edinburgh performances, including a bonus piece called ‘Transitions’ created by myself and Sarah that was played during the interval. The Liverpool previews at The Kazimier Garden were a great success and I’d like to offer my thanks to the cast and crew for giving me a chance to be involved – let’s hope they seduced the Fringe festival with the fruits of their labour! Also, a final big thanks to Sarah Peverley who co-created the music with me and was just generally brilliant throughout the process – we are continuing to work together on a new music project, so watch this space.”

50% of the proceeds of the original soundtrack to Goblin Market will be donated to supporting The Reader Organisation’s work. The soundtrack costs £2.50 and can be bought here: – you can also take a listen to all of the tracks there before buying.

For more information on Liverpool University Drama Society’s production of Goblin Market, see the Goblin Market 2013 blog and Twitter page.

Remembering Richard Briers

By Angela Macmillan, Editor of A Little, Aloud

Before Chatto and Windus published A Little, Aloud in 2010, they put together a mini version and sent it to the great and good and influential in order to drum up support. The response was overwhelming but perhaps none so warm and spontaneous as that of Richard Briers who immediately telephoned a surprised and delighted editor at Chatto saying, “What can I do to help?”  What he did was to write a wonderfully warm encomium for the back cover, turn up on a June evening for the launch at Waterstones Piccadilly and give a spirited and heartfelt reading of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ to a delighted audience and as if that were not enough, give an interview to The Reader magazine (Issue 41) about his reading life and his work as patron of Interact Reading Services.

“I read to stroke victims so know first-hand the power of good that reading aloud can do. This first-rate collection is a real treasure trove and I can’t recommend it highly enough” Richard Briers

Richard Briers at the launch of A Little, Aloud
Richard Briers at the launch of A Little, Aloud

The many tributes have all described a thoroughly decent, generous, funny, enthusiastic and kind man. We found him to be all these things and remember him with affection. The Reader Organisation has good reason to be grateful to him.

Click here to listen to Richard reading The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Richard Briers with (l-r) Joanna Trollope, Jane Davis, Blake Morrison and Angela Macmillan
Richard Briers with (l-r) Joanna Trollope, Jane Davis, Blake Morrison and Angela Macmillan

The Evening Read-In: The Metamorphosis Part 5

9pm on a Thursday evening can only mean one thing – The Evening Read-In, of course. It’s the final part of The Metamorphosis, so if you’ve been hanging on the edge of your seat all week wanting to know how Gregor ends up, you need wait no longer to find out. If you’re sitting comfortably, let’s begin with the ending…remember you can get involved in the story by sharing your thoughts on Twitter at any time over the next half an hour – just use #eveningreadin at the end of your tweets.

Click here to listen to The Metamorphosis – Part 5

Here’s a synopsis of Part 5, or if you prefer, you can read along with the text while you listen.

Gregor’s situation becomes increasingly worse – he had almost completely stopped eating, and his living conditions were cramped and dirty – everything that could not be kept elsewhere in the house was put into his room. One of the rooms in the flat had been rented out to three gentlemen. These men had particularly high standards and the family were keen to show them the utmost respect and cater to their needs, cooking and serving their meals to them in the family living room while the family remained in the kitchen.

One evening while the gentlemen dined, the sound of a violin streamed through from the kitchen. Gregor’s father became anxious that the gentlemen were displeased, but on the contrary they asked for Grete – who was the one playing – to come into the living room. Captivated by the music, Gregor moves himself into the living room a little. He thinks about how beautiful his sister’s playing is and wishes for her to come and play for him alone in his room, as the gentlemen do not seem to appreciate her. While lost in thought, Gregor is noticed by one of the gentlemen who points towards him and calls to Gregor’s father. Gregor’s father attempts to direct the men back into their room, while Grete rushes to Gregor’s room to clean it, but the men express their disgust and give immediate notice of their room.

In anger and frustration, Grete declares that the family cannot possibly continue to live as they are and that they should get rid of Gregor. Their father agrees that something should be done, but wishes that Gregor was able to understand them so they could make justify the decision. Grete argues that is impossible and anyway, Gregor has become an animal with no consideration or human qualities. In the midst of his sister’s commotion, Gregor crawls quietly back to his room, where he is locked in by Grete. He is no longer able to move and so lies there, feeling the pain fade from his body. Before the dawn of the next day, Gregor dies.

The next morning, the charwoman arrives at the flat and discovers Gregor. She rushes to tell the family of the news and they go to see his body, completely dried up. The three gentlemen enter, asking the charwoman for their breakfast. She takes them to see Gregor’s corpse, before Mr Samsa orders them to leave the house. All three members of the family use the day to write letters of excusal to their employers, their peace only disturbed by the charwoman who informs them ‘that thing in there’ has been taken care of. The family leave the flat together for the first time in months and take a tram to the country. The future seems bright for the whole family – with good jobs and the prospect of moving home – but especially Grete, who has become vibrant and confident – the perfect embodiment of a young lady.

The Evening Read-In: The Metamorphosis Part 4

Here we go, with the second to last part of this Evening Read-In, making our way through Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. What strange things will happen to Gregor and his family this week? Let’s listen together and find out…

Click here to listen to The Metamorphosis – Part 4

Below is a synopsis of Part 4 – or, if you like, read along with the text here as we listen.

A month has passed since Gregor’s transformation. He is still visited in his room daily by his sister who continues to carry out work to ensure he is looked after. His parents do not enter the room to see Gregor for themselves, instead relying on his sister Grete to keep them informed.

Gregor’s mother, having expressed a wish to see Gregor, enters his room one day to help Grete remove the furniture, as Grete believes it is hindering Gregor from his new habit of crawling on the walls and ceiling. Gregor hides under his sheet, making sure he is not seen by his mother so as not to alarm her, but is gladdened to simply know that she is there. The two women struggle to move the heavy furniture, with Gregor’s mother expressing uncertainty as to whether they should remove it at all, thinking that it seems like they are abandoning Gregor by doing so. His mother’s reasoning makes Gregor realise that he is swiftly losing his humanity. However, Grete, having acquired new-found confidence, dismisses her mother’s fears and goes on with the plan, leaving the room almost completely bare. 

Having become disorientated by the movement in the room and fearful that all of his possessions are being taken from him, Gregor moves onto a picture on the wall – the sole thing left he can claim as his own.  Covering it, he is clearly visible on the wall and upon returning to the room, his mother screams out as she sees him. A commotion is caused and Grete shuts Gregor in a room alone. On arriving home, his father asks what happened and Grete informs him that Gregor had got out and their mother had fainted. His father, looking very different to the man Gregor remembers, enters the room Gregor is in. The two begin to move to and fro, Gregor becoming exhausted. An apple rolls on the floor beside Gregor, followed by many others that are thrown purposely at him by his father. His sister and mother become hysterical, his mother begging with his father to spare Gregor’s life.

Due to the attack, Gregor becomes injured and increasingly immobile. He continues to watch and listen to his family while hidden completely from their view, although he notices all of them have become much quieter, all being exhausted from the increased work they have taken on and struggling to maintain the household. Although they wish to move, the family complain that they cannot do so because it would be difficult to transfer Gregor. Gregor finds himself unable to sleep, occupied by thoughts of his family, work and frustration at the increasing lack of attention he is shown.

With Grete taking on more work outside of the house, and his mother unable to do so adequately, the task of looking after Gregor falls to the charwoman, an elderly widow who is not repelled by Gregor – in fact she treats him with an kind of patronising disregard, which Gregor resents. Intending to let her know how much he dislikes her presence, he moves towards her but she is not deterred, hitting his back forcefully with a chair before continuing with her work.

Don’t forget – you can join us anytime within the next 40 minutes to share your thoughts on the story; just tweet with the hashtag #eveningreadin (or you can tweet us directly). We’d love to hear what you think!

The Evening Read-In: The Metamorphosis Part 3

Are you sitting at your computer, tea and biscuits to hand? Because it’s time once more to read in with us for Part 3 of The Evening Read-In. Get ready for more of Gregor’s adventures in The Metamorphosis…

 Click here to listen to The Metamorphosis – Part 3

Here’s a synopsis of what happens in Part 3, or you can read along here as we listen:

Gregor awakes from a deep sleep as the evening is darkening, being aware of there having been some movement in his room. He limps to the door, badly injured from the chaotic events of the day. As he opens it, he finds a dish filled with milk and small lumps of bread. Though ravenous with hunger, he is disappointed to find that the milk is unpleasant to taste and retreats back to his room.

Gregor looks out through the crack in the door to the family living room, which is unusually quiet. During the evening the doors on either side of his room are opened then closed twice very quickly, by a hesitant visitor. Gregor waits for the person to come back to find out their identity but they do not return. Gregor’s parents and sister stay awake until late and then tiptoe from the living room. With no company for the night, Gregor lies alone thinking of how he must rearrange and conduct his life with the least possible imposition on his family’s lives.

The next morning, Gregor’s sister enters his room tentatively – after a initial failed attempt which results in her slamming the door closed in shock. Noticing the milk had been hardly touched, she brings Gregor a selection of different foods to try and hurries away again, not wanting to embarrass him by watching him eat. Famished, Gregor feasts on rotten vegetables and stale sauce – repelled by the fresh food  – and is intrigued to discover his injuries from the previous evening have completely healed. His sister returns to remove the food and clean, and despite being lethargic and enlarged from eating, Gregor scurries to hide under the couch when she enters.

Unable to be understood by his family, Gregor has to listen in to their conversations, which are mainly about him. He notices that nobody is ever left by themselves in the house since he has transformed, with the maid also begging to be dismissed early from her work.  Gregor is relieved to overhear his father say that there is money left over from his failed business, although it is really meant as an emergency fund. Gregor worries about who will have to work to sustain the family, his father being slow and clumsy, his mother old and suffering with asthma and his sister inexperienced and accustomed to a life of pleasure rather than work. He feels a deep sense of shame at his inability to do anything productive for his family.

Gregor remains in his room, leaning against his chair and staring out of the window, his view of the outside street becoming increasingly distinct. His sister continues to do things for him, entering his room twice daily. Gregor feels uncomfortable on behalf of them both, knowing himself to be a burden and unsettling to his sister.

Remember, you can share your thoughts on the story with us as you listen for the next half-hour, by hopping over to Twitter and attaching the#eveningreadin hashtag to your tweets. Happy reading-in!

The Evening Read-In: The Metamorphosis Part 2

Yes, it’s that time again, 9pm on a quiet Thursday night – the perfect opportunity to join in with Part 2 of the Evening Read-In, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Click here to listen to The Metamorphosis – Part 2

Here’s a short synopsis of Part 2, or you can read the full text here as we listen.

While his family and the chief clerk are waiting for the doctor and the locksmith, Gregor is contemplating his voice and their lack of understanding of his words. Gregor decides to make for the door, so he can reveal himself to those on the other side. Reaching the door, exhausted from the struggle, he uses the adhesive on the tip of his legs to cling to it. He soon realises that his lack of teeth will make turning the key and opening the door very difficult. But in his new, alien jaw, he finds great strength; and gripping the key between his jaws, he eventually twists and opens the door.

On seeing Gregor’s new appearance – that of a giant insect – the chief clerk backs away in horror; his mother passes out in shock; his father begins to cry. Gregor remains calm and gives a long speech to the chief clerk, in honour of his job, since travelling salesmen are often made the subject of negative gossip. He asks for the truth to be told. ‘But the chief clerk had turned away as soon as Gregor had started to speak’ and continues to retreat from the apartment, not hearing a word through his horror. He makes a sudden movement and bolts.

Gregor, not wanting the chief clerk to escape, tries to catch him unsuccessfully. To his surprise he soon realises how easily accustomed he is with his new insect legs.

Grabbing a newspaper and the chief clerk’s cane, Gregor’s father drives him back into his bedroom. In the confusion, Gregor injures himself in the doorway. His father continues to drive Gregor into the room and then slams the door shut.

Don’t forget to get involved and share your thoughts as the story unfolds live: tweet us and attach the hashtag #eveningreadin to your tweets – we’d love to hear what you think.

Now sit back, relax, and enjoy a dramatic half hour of shared reading aloud.

Podcast: Jane on Arts and Health

Jane Davis, recently appeared at the LSE Space for Thought Literary Festival in an event dedicated to exploring the relationship between arts and health.

‘The Medicine Chest of the Soul’, a session chaired by Tim Joss, Director of the Rayne Foundation, featured Jane alongside author Jeanette Winterson, and the LSE’s David McDaid and Margaret Perkins. They discussed the healing power of literature and the role of the arts in substantially improving health and wellbeing, something that is an important aspect of TRO’s work .   

You can listen to the lively and compelling session here.