I’ve recently come back from a week spent in Cheshire with eighteen other writers. We were all on a training course run by The Reader Organisation teaching us how to facilitate reading groups.
Surely you don’t need to be trained to run a reading group, I hear you say. Well that’s what I thought before I went. After all, I’d run a reading group in my local community for several years. But not the way The Reader Organisation runs them.
They started off in Liverpool as a small project run by the university. Now they’ve practically taken over the whole of Merseyside, they have a group at the heart of government in the Cabinet Office, and Australia is inviting them to set up their operation over there.
So what’s it all about? Well I wouldn’t like to be too definitive. I only spent a week there. But, in short, what they’re trying to do is create a reading revolution. They’ve had enough of celebrity biographies, of people being deprived of their access, no their entitlement, to our rich cultural heritage.
The engine of change is guided reading groups in which the facilitator reads aloud with the group, stopping every now and then to talk about the text, but not in a directed way. This is not about telling people what to think. It’s about finding out how the text resonates with each and every reader.
The focus is on writers of proven depth, and they concentrate on evoking an emotional response. That’s the key. They don’t have any truck with critical theory, which they see as all too often creating barriers to reading.
Does it work? You bet it does. They work with prisoners, with people who have mental health problems, with recovering addicts, with difficult teenagers on problem estates, with elderly people in care homes suffering from dementia (yes, that’s dementia folks), with people recovering from strokes. And the group members gain confidence, self-esteem and articulacy. I know because I met a number of them.
I know this probably sounds like a description of a cult to you. But if it is, then it’s an entirely benevolent cult because it’s purpose is to re-establish the reading habit as a way of rebuilding community, and as a force for social good and personal change. Their mission is quite simply to put our society back in touch with a huge, artistic and emotional resource that our educational system, with its emphasis on talking about books rather than on reading them for pleasure, seems to have entirely lost touch with.
That name of that resource is literature.