By Jane Davis, Founder and Director, The Reader
The Reader began life as The Reader magazine, in Spring 1997, growing out of the literature programme in Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool, on which I taught with Angela Macmillan and Sarah Coley. In the first (unacknowledged) editorial I wrote:
“Above all we want to give our readers ‘the crazy sensation that you are reading about yourselves’, and we hope that The Reader will become ‘something real to carry home when day is done’.”
For many years prior to this, I had worked with my colleague Brian Nellist, and husband Professor Phil Davis, in the School of English, at the University of Liverpool, where we were sharing and exploring personal responses to literature in the age of high theory.
Our courses were practical: based on building shared understandings through slow, shared reading – and we read aloud, not whole books as we do now in our groups, but lots of important chunks, so that the text had a presence in the room. These classes taught us that reading – poetry, the novels of Saul Bellow, a Shakespeare play – wasn’t simply an individual pleasure (though it is always that) but that like food, it could also be a deeply, connecting social culture.
It kept striking me that this wonderful thing we had forged – reading, talking, taking life seriously and enjoying each other – could be good for people who would never come to Continuing Education classes, perhaps people who could not read, or had forgotten the pleasure of reading. I wanted to take reading to all sorts of places. I wanted it not to be connected to exams, to writing essays, to modules or any other form: just reading and talking. So in 2002 I set up a five-week summer project called ‘Get Into Reading’ to find people who would never come to a University course.
The first two shared reading groups were set up for young mothers and adult learners in Birkenhead. Those early group members quickly began to tell me:
“This isn’t just reading, this is good for my health, you should be getting paid by the NHS”.
That’s what happened. And more. With impacts such as increased personal confidence and reduced social isolation, improved emotional and psychological wellbeing, greater stability and support, and a better understanding of others, shared reading has proven itself as a valuable addition to health services.
Now, more than ten years later, over 360 shared reading groups meet each week across the UK. A considerable amount of those are commissioned by mental and public health services but increasingly, we’re paving a strong path in criminal justice, education and dementia care settings.
It was in 2008 that The Reader truly burst into life, becoming a registered charity and the first arts spin-out from the University of Liverpool, with a strong track record of working with diverse partner organisations to reach people of all ages and from a huge variety of backgrounds.
In many ways it’s still early days for us – we’ve got a lot more work to do – but that sense of having ‘something real to carry home when the day is done’ is now a reality for thousands more people each week.
Dr Jane Davis MBE
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