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‘Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone’: Obama Shares Reading

Written by The Reader, 24th January 2017

As he kicks back to catch up on his reading list, we reflect how former United States President Barack Obama's love of books influenced his life.

This week, as the world adjusts to a new family in the White House, we expect that Barack Obama will be putting his feet up and tucking into the expansive 'To Read' list which he recently spoke of in an interview with the New York Times.

A reoccurring theme throughout the interview is a familiar one here at The Reader, the power of great stories to bring people together, to help people connect, realise, change.

"...the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute."

Barack Obama, New York Times

During his presidency, Obama said he rediscovered the importance of reading novels in addition to the many briefings, memos and proposals he read every day, in order to engage with 'the poetry and depth of fiction'. This 'close reading' is exactly what happens in our Shared Reading groups, with everything being read aloud and time taken to really consider and discuss the stories and poems together.

"Fiction was useful as a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about every day and was a way of seeing and hearing the voices, the multitudes of this country."

Barack Obama, New York Times

At The Reader we know the value of reading great literature by different authors, drawing from different cultures and backgrounds, but even in the reading of a single poem, a Shared Reading group draws on the experiences and outlooks of eight, nine, or ten people which offers a rich and diverse discussion. The simple process of hearing a poem read aloud in different voices, with different dialects or accents or offering a different emphasis reveals a new depth to a text that we might not appreciate  when we read something alone.

"When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever."

Barack Obama, New York Times

imagesWhile he has spoken extensively of his love of books and of reading, Obama has also demonstrated an appreciation of Shared Reading through the many occasions on which he and Michelle led storytelling sessions with children such as those at The Storybarn.

Whether we read alone or in a group as with Shared Reading, storytellers offer us a priceless emotional education, teaching us about the human condition and in turn, about empathy. Through reading we share in both the suffering and celebrations of our favourite fictional characters - we suffer Jane Eyre's desolation as keenly as we rejoice with Danny the Champion of the World and his father in their victory over the greedy Victor Hazell. In Shared Reading these moments of pain or glory often reflect similar experiences in our own lives.

By reading about Alice's disorientation in Wonderland, Group Members recall their own experiences of feeling lost or misunderstood. In Maya Angelou's Still I Rise our readers remember their own moments of personal victory or value however minor or seemingly insignificant. We create connections with the literature but also with each other, empathising not only with the character or the author but with the individuals around us in the corner of a library or a prison classroom.

Recognising the value of this, Obama suggests that empathy is a muscle that must be exercised:

"I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful."

Barack ObamaNew York Times

You can read the full transcript of Obama's interview with the New York Times here.

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If you're interested in finding out more about Shared Reading visit our website and find a group near you.

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