“Reading has given me life”: Better with a Book

Our Young People panel, Baroness Estelle Morris, Dr Alice Sullivan and Simon Barber with Jane (c. @PennyFosten, Twitter)
Our Young People panel, Baroness Estelle Morris, Dr Alice Sullivan and Simon Barber with Jane (c. @PennyFosten, Twitter)

Yesterday delegates, readers and The Reader Organisation staff descended on The British Library Conference Centre in London, awaiting a day of stimulating discussion and thought-provoking insights into the practice of shared reading for our fifth annual National Conference, Better with a Book. The sun was shining early, which was only a sign of the good things to come, and anticipation for the day started early with our #betterwithabook hashtag on Twitter:

Off to ‘s national conference . Anticipating inspiration, ideas and some great poems.

Read. Share. Live. Inspire. Be inspired. Be well.

We welcomed delegates from a wide range of fields, including libraries and community development, education, therapy, law, nursing, and from across the country and beyond – even from as far away as Melbourne, showcasing the global reach that shared reading is beginning to have.

After a welcome from Founder and Director Dr Jane Davis thanking everyone for being advocates of reading for pleasure, the day started by asking whether young people are Better with a Book featuring an esteemed panel, Baroness Estelle Morris (Institute of Effective Education at the University of York), Dr Alice Sullivan (Director 1970 British Cohort Study, Institute of Education, University of London) and Simon Barber (Chief Executive at 5 Boroughs Partnership NHS Trust). After reading from their favourite childhood books, Dr Sullivan presented the findings of an illuminating study which found that young people’s reading habits had more influence on their attainment than the level of their parents’ education. The matter of giving young people choice to explore reading in relation to their place in their world was a big talking point – Simon spoke of his experiences of running a group for young people in the mental health inpatient unit at 5 Boroughs, where they chose to read texts as eclectic as Black Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, and Estelle placed emphasis on reading as a social context for children and young people.

Great to be with a whole room of compassionate bookworms ‘s event

The most inspiring and incredibly moving part of the day came when we met some of our readers from shared reading groups in London and Merseyside who shared their personal experiences of the impact shared reading has had upon their lives, from giving them the confidence to live well as well as discover new skills (Jennifer went on to do Read to Lead training), find employment, appear on stage, and in the most fundamental and significant cases, provided them with the means to keep on living. Shared reading was described as a ‘lifesaver’ and the power of the testimonies was truly alive in the room:

Inspiring personal testimonies from readers. Life changing moments beautifully told

such transformation in people’s lives has happened through reading groups!

Incredibly moving, funny, raw stories from those attending groups with

It wasn’t just the effect on themselves that was brought to life – Jennifer spoke passionately about her work reading with people with dementia, and one woman in particular for whom shared reading has brought joy and a release to her life, so much so that it is a major point of her week:

“She’s in the poetry, and for one whole hour she’s happy.”

Seminars honing in on the topics of shared reading in PIPEs, research into the cultural significance of shared reading, examining the working model of shared reading for commissioners and the links between reading for pleasure and cognitive development gave much for us to think about before heading to our main afternoon sessions.

Lord Melvyn Bragg at Better with a Book (c. @Hollingtonn, Twitter)
Lord Melvyn Bragg at Better with a Book (c. @Hollingtonn, Twitter)

Lord Alan Howarth (Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Arts, Health and Wellbeing) chaired a panel discussion how reading in prisons can contribute to prison reform and how prisoners should be helped within the system and on return to the community. The complex topic was masterfully handled by Nick Benefield (previous Advisor on Personality Disorder at NHS England and Joint Head of the NHS Personality Disorder Programme), Lord David Ramsbotham (House of Lords member with a focus on penal reform and defence) and Megg Hewlett (Reader-in-Residence and PIPEs group leader in West London). Following the day’s emerging theme of shared reading ‘opening and unlocking’ individuals, Megg shared the story of a young woman within a criminal justice setting finding herself in the poem Bluebird by Charles Bukowski, and Lord Ramsbotham spoke of his belief in the importance of Readers-in-Residence to both the medical and educational needs of prisoners.

Our keynote speech came from writer, broadcaster and author Lord Melvyn Bragg, who spoke in-depth about the story behind his novel Grace and Mary, which came from his own experiences of his mother being diagnosed with dementia. He spoke about how it was important for him to help and discussed how literature linked with his lived experiences of the condition; in particular highlighting The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot and King Lear (“Nothing will come of nothing.”). In discussion with Jane, Lord Bragg spoke about his life as a reader, saying that he couldn’t imagine his life without books and explaining in powerful words what reading has done for him.

“Reading has given me life…reading has given me several lives…reading has given me access to the possibility of a great number of lives.”

His words proved just as inspiring for our audience:

Melvyn Bragg ‘access to the paths not taken- that’s all in reading’. Amazing closing talk ‘s conference

A closing point from Jane which reminded us of the importance of finding ourselves in reading books from the ages rounded off a remarkable day which highlighted in real human terms the remarkable effects reading can have on so many different lives. ‘Inspirational’ was the word of the day from our #betterwithabook attendees, and it was a very fitting term indeed.

Better with a Book was featured on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking by Jules Evans from Queen Mary Centre for the History of Emotions, University of London. Listen from around 38 min 20 secs in to hear about books that have helped guests through hard times and an exploration of our work and research: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0435bj1

‘A ripple of triumph’: feeling Better with a Book in secure settings

Lord Howarth
Lord Alan Howarth will be speaking at Better with a Book, TRO’s fifth National Conference

Better with a Book, The Reader Organisation’s fifth annual National Conference, is coming to The British Library Conference Centre in London on Thursday 15th May, with booking now open. Join us and special guests including Lord Melvyn Bragg, Baroness Estelle Morris and Dr Alice Sullivan to explore how shared reading and literature can be utilised to improve mental health, stimulate emotional wellbeing and enhance quality of life.

Amongst the speakers at Better with a Book is Lord Alan Howarth, Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing and previous Minister for Schools and Higher Education (1989-1992) and Minister for the Arts (1998-2001). Lord Howarth previously spoke about The Reader Organisation and his experience attending shared reading groups at last year’s Culture, Health and Wellbeing Conference, in a speech about the creative power of the arts to make an impact on the health of individuals and communities.

After visiting one of our regular groups at Wormwood Scrubs, Lord Howarth corresponded with the group’s leader and practitioner Megg Hewlett, Reader-in-Residence at West London Mental Health Trust, to comment on the positive effects he found that shared reading had in the highly secure environment:

“I’m in no doubt that this particular experience of reading helps the participants to think anew about moral, personal and social issues through focusing calmly and attentively on the texts and relating to other people engaged collaboratively in the same activity.” – Lord Alan Howarth to Megg Hewlett, After the Visit, The Reader 53

A series of the correspondence between Lord Howarth and Megg appears in Issue 53 of The Reader magazine, alongside an interview with columnist and former prisoner Erwin James. In light of the recent news restricting the access that prisoners have to books, the piece indicates how shared reading of quality literature can offer bonding, a greater sense of self-awareness and a better understanding of a world outside of the self to prisoners and those residing in secure environments, factors which help to contribute to reducing reoffending. Lord Howarth will be chairing a discussion between Megg and Nick Benefield, previously Joint Head of the NHS and NOMS Offender Personality Disorder Implementation Programme, about the effects of shared reading as a therapeutic intervention in secure environments as part of Better with a Book.

In their correspondence featuring in The Reader 53, Megg explains the challenges of reading within a secure environment to Lord Howarth, which include engaging often reluctant readers amongst other factors. Yet once they discover that reading can be enjoyable and uplifting, other significant benefits follow:

“For many I read with a book is as terrifying as climbing a vertical rockface with little equipment and no training. When they first come into the room the terror is often palpable – a being in its own right – and my job is to attend to that part of the person, settle it down, and help them find some joy in something that has only previously given pain or been of no interest. You’re looking for small indications but they mark big events. The most common comment I have in that group is ‘I didn’t think I’d like this but it’s not bad’. When I hear this I feel a tiny ripple of triumph.”

Hear Megg speak to Lord Howarth firsthand about the experiences of sharing reading in secure environments, and learn more about how shared reading works practically in Psychologically Informed Planned Environments (PIPEs) at Better with a Book.

Full day delegate places (including VAT, lunch and refreshments) cost £140. Booking is available online via Eventbrite or via cheque or invoice – full information on how to book using these payment methods is available on the Conference page of our website. For queries or more information, please contact Abigail on abigailleader@thereader.org.uk or call 0151 207 7221.

For all the latest news on the Conference, follow the #betterwithabook hashtag on Twitter