Jane Davis on Shared Reading

Welcome to The Reader

More than 25 years ago, I sat down on a bus, opened a sci-fi novel I’d just bought and read:

Johor reports:
I have been sent on errands to our Colonies on many planets. Crises of all kinds are familiar to me. I have been involved in emergencies that threaten species, or carefully planned local programmes. I have known more than once what it is to accept the failure, final and irreversible, of an effort or experiment to do with creatures who have within themselves the potential of development dreamed of, planned for…and then – Finis! The drum pattering out into silence…

Shikasta, by Doris Lessing, is a novel about the influence of galactic empires on our planet. But as I read these opening sentences, I was thinking about my parents, both people who had “within themselves the potential of development dreamed of…” and whose lives were turning to “failure, final and irreversible” as I became a young adult. I was using my own private experience to understand this book. That understanding – that we bring ourselves to the book and that that is the key to creative engagement with literature – became my life’s work.

By the turn of the millennium, and with many years’ experience of teaching literature as if it were all to be taken personally, I was determined to get the great books out of the university, so I set up The Reader and developed our Shared Reading model.

The Reader exists to bring about a reading revolution, bringing great books to life by reading aloud, and modelling personal engagement with the text.
We work with all age groups and with people in a huge range of situations, but the work we do doesn’t change. We love books, we love to read them as if they personally mattered in our lives and we love to share them by reading aloud.

A man in prison writes,

“I’ve been in here 28 years. And to be honest, this is the best part of my week. This makes you feel human… when you’re reading, you are that character, you understand where they’re coming from. You can put yourself in there and relate to it, understand your own distorted life.”

Shared Reading group member, HMP Frankland
Reading Silas Marner by George Eliot

It’s a reading revolution because it is for everybody, for people in prison, yes, but also for people like me and perhaps you. A man working for major multinational company, volunteering for The Reader in his own time, writes:

“I started seeing people respond to me differently at work – it was remarkable really and it was almost instantaneous. It gave me more confidence because I knew that whatever I was saying was getting in. The Reader teaches you how to listen and watch better – to use silence, how to pause -which is vital in meetings. It’s about learning to read people, as well as literature. I’m gaining skills, but I get to give something back too.”

The reading revolution is also for Rose, who has been living in a Care Home for the last three years. Rose told us:

“You keep a lot to yourself. There’s no one who really takes any interest. I don’t think anyone else cares. It’s only you who comes and does these things and it’s something to look forward to. I look forward to the poems.
We’re all pleased about you coming. We feel like somebody cares. We didn’t know what to expect when we first started the group, but what we got was lovely! If you didn’t come, we’d have nothing to think about.
It’s surprising what it does to the mind. After you’ve been and we’ve read these poems, I think it helps a lot. Everything in your mind seems clearer. I often think about them after you’ve left.”

And a child in foster care, read to by a volunteer who comes to her home each week said,

“I love reading with Jess and reading fantastic poetry and poems and lovely story books, thank you, Jess. I wish I could read with Jess forever till I am a million or a billion or a gazillion infinity number. I love the books you pick out.”

Everyone always asks… “What do you mean by great literature?
By “great literature” I mean writing that opens up thoughts and feelings about the most complex bits of being a human. For example:

Pastoralia by George Saunders (Riverhead Books) is a collection of short stories, loosely based on life in contemporary America. Many of the stories are about work and anyone who has had a job will recognise the subject, despite the outlandish disguise.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (OWC) this nineteenth century novel is about two young women who become ‘sisters’ when their parents marry. It’s about being a young woman, the different ways different families survive and it’s about the role sexual attractiveness plays in survival.

King Baby by Kate Beaton (Walker Books) is about a first child who gets to be a big boy and realises that his place at the centre of the universe is going to be taken by his new baby sister. It’s also the difference between what babies think and what parents think, and parental exhaustion.

King Lear by William Shakespeare (OWC) is about an old man who makes a terrible mistake and suffers for it. Also, family dynamics, sibling rivalry, madness, poverty, kingship, ambition, friendship, and love.

All our Reader Leaders make their own selections, but there is an underlying principle: when choosing what to read, we ask ourselves: will this book (story, poem, play, novel) open conversations that encourage reader members to make connections to their own lives? Will it allow us to go deep into the experience and language of being a human?
It’s always wonderful to see how strongly people who have never thought of reading poetry react to it. A woman in prison responded to Charles Bukowski’s Bluebird saying:

“It’s all about someone who has this bravado on the outside, but underneath they are not hard – but they won’t show that to anyone. It’s got my belly churning. I can feel it here.’ (Points to her abdomen). ‘It’s the best thing I’ve read. It’s really good. He’s hard-faced and doesn’t want people to see he has something special going on. It’s like me really… that one… man, it got me!”

Over the next few years we’re going to expand the work of The Reader by opening up our work to many more volunteers. If you love reading, and you take it personally and you care about people, The Reader needs to hear from you, so get in touch and be part of the story.

Jane Davis, MBE, Ashoka Fellow, Founder and Director
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