Read To Me
It’s no secret that I’m obsessed with paper, and books, and reading. My love of books stems from my father and his passion: I was brought up reading everything, from Dad’s Asterix to The Sunday Comics, with some rather inappropriate Shirley Conran thrown in far too early (my fault: I stole it from the bookshelves). Dad and mum always read to us- usually at bedtime, and I remember so well that secure feeling of being tucked up under my covers, with mum or dad sitting on the edge of the bed, book open so that I could see the pages and pictures, and listening to them read. It’s the most focused time one can give a child- and of course, we read to our son Barnaby at night time, and I’m happy to say that negotiation has already begun on the number of books and stories read, my heart singing a little when I hear the appeal of “Just ONE more mummy, PLEASE!”
As we grow older, if we are lucky enough to have our interest nurtured, our appetite for reading grows. The input of parents is complemented by teachers and their reading: hopefully reinforcing in us that the enjoyment isn’t finite. But reading, as we grow older, often becomes a solitary pleasure: we “escape” with a book, “get lost” in the plot, “hide away” with our books. I remember far too well, too painfully well, the book I was reading when my mother died in 1987. I was 13 years old at the time, and had completed Benchley’s Jaws, thinking it was one of the most remarkable books I’d ever read (I still think it’s brilliant). I had then moved on to The Deep: and I immersed myself in the narrative through the absolute heart & gut wrenching last days of my mother’s illness. It provided me with my own underwater world beneath which I could sink, when I became too terrified of the reality that was inevitably consuming me. I did it alone- because that’s what worked at the time.
Solitary reading can be good: therapeutic, medicinal even: but what I then began to experience again, at about age 14, was the reminder that being read TO wasn’t something purely for childhood stories. Being read TO could awake even more excitement in the narrative; having someone (at least, in our case, English teacher extraordinaire Mrs Lovell) read aloud to you was like having the narrative performed, albeit in an understated & more contained manner. Mrs Lovell changed the course of my literary life: I trained as an English teacher, and, for thirteen years of teaching, I made sure that when I read aloud to my students, I did so with as much energy, empathy and enthusiasm that I could muster. I’ve read Of Mice and Men over forty times aloud to a variety of ages and abilities, and with each and every group, the quiet sadness that falls on the class, listening to the last melancholic pages of Steinbeck’s novella, always makes me cry. And it’s not because I’m a brilliant reader, because I’m not: it’s the fact that when a person is allowed to sit, for fifty minutes, and do nothing but listen & at times follow a beautiful story, humanity is restored in us, consideration of the world envelops us, and our emotional intelligences are fostered as we try to make sense of the world unfolding in the pages, and thus in our lives.
And so you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover The Reader Organisation: quite frankly how I hadn’t heard of them before baffles me, but there you go. The Reader Organisation is a charitable social enterprise whose mission is to “build a Reading Revolution”, and their vision is to “bring people and great literature together". They do this through an innovative shared reading model, where groups of people meet and share stories and literature read aloud to them. Appreciation of reading and literature is fostered, and hugely important social connections are made through the process. The Reader Organisation run a variety of projects, in a variety of places: prisons, schools, workplaces, libraries: and they are changing lives. You only need to take a look at their website to read about the changes the organisation is bringing about and the positive effects the reading groups are having on people.
The group that I volunteer for is a group focusing on people with memory loss: mostly, people with dementia. We meet in a local library, and led by the group’s co-ordinator, Josephine Corcoran, we read a short story and a poem for the hour and a half we are together. To witness the enjoyment and comfort that listening to a story read aloud can bring has completely reinforced my belief in the power of reading aloud, and it has also stunned me somewhat. I see, every Wednesday, sparks ignite in people: in someone’s eyes, through someone recounting a childhood memory, in the tone of voice when a group member suddenly starts reading aloud- almost unaware himself of where his voice came from. It’s humbling to be a part of such an experience.
People suffering from memory loss will come to the group with their carers, most often their spouses, and so the group is not only beneficial for the person with the memory loss, but for their partners too. We read aloud, we take it in turns, we talk about what we’ve read: and we share memories. Because the environment is one of security, people perhaps feel that they can share more: one of our group members has been talking at length about the time he was evacuated: another, of years spent working abroad: we all share experiences, and we all listen. Perhaps getting adults together in groups to read is one of the most secure, “tucked up under the covers” things we can do: our minds and bodies can take comfort in the familiarity that listening to a story can bring. We listen to the story, and to each other.
The Reader Organisation is always looking for volunteers: not only to work with memory loss groups, but for other projects and meetings too. If the idea of changing someone's life through the pleasure of shared reading appeals to you, if you feel you could make a difference, please get in touch with them.
The Reader Organisation, The Friary Centre, Bute Street, Liverpool L5 3LA
Registered charity number: 1126806