Matthew recently shared his experiences of volunteering at the Aesop Arts and Health Conference in London. This is his Reader Story:
“After over four years of volunteering, I feel a sense of reflection in realising what a huge difference being a Reader Leader has made to my life. Before I started, I had no idea what it would do for me.
I was keen on reading, keen on literature and that was why I wanted to do it. But now I understand what it means to use literature to work with people – how it can make people think. And I have learnt so many different things that have helped me develop as a reading facilitator.
When preparing for the sessions, I have had to read literature as if someone else is reading it, and I think about how it might affect other people’s lives. I have to think about what questions to ask in order to get the conversation going, and a lot of this work happens live in the session, so I’ve learnt to think on my feet.
In some ways it’s been really easy, because you have the words, the literature is there. It’s about taking it from the book and bringing it into people’s lives. It’s something I love doing, it benefits other people, it benefits you the facilitator, and with experience, you become good at it. At the start when I was reading aloud, I would struggle to concentrate on the words, my mind would be racing all over the place, thinking about anything but the book, perhaps thinking about what had happened earlier in the day, but gradually I learnt to focus on the words in front of me. I became much calmer and more confident with reading aloud. I let the words do all the work for me. All I needed to do was prod things along a bit, point the conversation in different directions. We talk about mindfulness a lot these days and I totally get that – Shared Reading is a great way of losing yourself, of becoming totally immersed.
There are lots of voluntary roles out there, but I really feel this one is unique in helping you make changes, even changing your own life. Some of that is to do with your relationship with the group members. But a lot of it is to do with the work you put in, the planning, the organisation, the connections, and the satisfaction of seeing people respond through reading.
When I was growing up, I barely read at all. I certainly hadn’t read a poem before I trained with the Reader. I went to a rural state school where reading wasn’t championed, it was neither encouraged nor discouraged, it just wasn’t seen to be important. I can only think of a couple of books I read, and never remember looking at a poem. Although my dad and sister read a lot, I never did. In fact, I think if I had been seen to read at school, I would have stuck out and might even been picked on, there really wasn’t a reading culture at my school.
Although I went on to university, I wasn’t prepared for the rigorous academic study, and I certainly didn’t know how to think. In fact, I didn’t believe I was bright enough for university because it seemed such different world, one which I wasn’t prepared for.
In my early twenties I continued to battle with feelings of alienation, I struggled with complex questions about inequality and why a lack of opportunity should define a person’s life. I didn’t really understand at the time, however what I was really trying to find was a sense of purpose and direction.
During this process, I was lucky to meet a person who became a mentor and later a friend. He introduced me to fiction. I remember him writing down on an A4 sheet some titles of books such as Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Hemingway, Steinbeck, there were others. I had little idea what to expect, however I went away and read them. They were good, even enjoyable, however I was expecting answers and immediate results. I also expected to find immediate reward for all my hard work. There was no immediate reward, which was also a learning experience. He told me to go away and read some more, he gave me more lists of books, but this time he asked me to write about what I had read, and so this continued.
At some point during this process, the floodgates opened, and I became hugely passionate about reading. I had a real hunger for it, and I absorbed literature. It took many years’ though, before I found my reward. In these early reading years, there was no immediate gratification, except a general sense of enjoyment for a story.
However, as I read more, unbeknownst to me, my mind was changing. My imagination became stronger, my curiosity for the world became more pronounced, I felt able to think more clearly, the more I read, the more I questioned and the more I wanted to find answers.
A long time after this – perhaps ten years later – this same friend heard about the work of The Reader and suggested I look into it. Knowing how reading had opened the doors of my imagination, I felt emboldened to volunteer, as I knew it could be life changing for others too. In 2013, I went on the training course. I just had an instinct that it was a good thing. This was the first voluntary work I had signed up for where I was actually going to take the lead in something.
I work full time in a legal services firm, so I had to find time to prepare at the weekends. Luckily my work has been supportive and allowed me to leave half an hour early on a Monday to get to the library for the evening group. I took over the group from someone working for The Reader. After a short while I was joined by another newly trained volunteer and for a long time we co-facilitated together which was great. We both shared a passion for reading and we could cover for each other occasionally and for holidays and share out the preparation.
At first, when selecting material, I drew heavily from a US humanities database that focused on literature that was health related. But after a while, with experience, I released myself from that – I found it a bit deep and bleak sometimes – and had the confidence to make different and more spontaneous choices. As I come from an Information background, I liked to find my poems by searching poetry websites by identifying themes in the story and then using those as key words in a search. At first it was a question of feeling my way, but then I got better and better at matching poetry.
In some ways my lack of any formal education in literature has really helped me. I’ve had to teach myself and I think this has made me willing to follow my own path. The group is a great way of testing your thoughts and finding ways to challenge the group members. We talk about so many sorts of things and, whilst not wanting to upset anyone, I’m not afraid of going to places that I think would be good to explore. I believe you shouldn’t just ‘stay in the zone’ but explore new things.
Even when I’ve struggled to find the time to do the preparation, and, more recently, when I was leading by myself, when I’ve got to the library I’ve always enjoyed the evening and got a sense of satisfaction from it. There is a sense of responsibility towards the group – you know they are relying on you, that they look forward to it and it’s a really important element of their week.
I’ve been able to take the skills I’ve learnt in Shared Reading back into my workplace. It’s more than skills – it’s about confidence and an understanding of people and how things work that you learn from the reading as well as the facilitating. I work in a corporate company which promotes a culture of hard work. You are expected to follow, and it’s difficult to relax and be yourself. Reading has helped with all that. It has given me the confidence to cut through the tension, to ignore anxiety and I’ve become more in tune with my own feelings. I now feel I can be myself and facilitating has helped with this. I’m a lot more confident about myself in these situations.
Literature is all about human behaviour, and the more you read, the more you build up this understanding. This helps you cut through the culture, to look through the levels of seniority at the person underneath. At the group, people from all walks of life attend the group and, while they are in that group, we put that aside – we are all the same really. I was able to take that feeling with me out of the group.
In practical terms, volunteering for The Reader has been great. I have added it onto my CV, talked about it in interviews and added it to my LinkedIn profile. In these terms, and because I have volunteered for a long time, it is a way of demonstrating who you are, establishing your sense of self.
Group members don’t necessarily know the work that you put into facilitating, but you get something from seeing that you are making a difference to people’s lives and there is a sense of satisfaction as you see people come back each week. You show loyalty and they reward you with their loyalty. I’ve been so pleased with the comments and thanks I have received from group members when I told them I was leaving.”
Thanks to support from the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, The Reader are recruiting and training new volunteers from across the UK to bring Shared Reading into their local community.
Want to know more about volunteering opportunities near you? Get in touch and be part of the story.