Dhaka, Bangladesh
Literature isn't a luxury but a life-changer

Literature isn't a luxury but a life-changer

A long time ago, I sat at a junction in one of Merseyside's - and Europe's - most impoverished areas, waiting for the lights, on my way to teach Wordsworth at the university. I noticed a woman waiting at the door of an ex-council house, like one of the houses I'd lived in as a kid - cheaply built, side window covered with plywood, overgrown front garden. The door was opened by a young woman with a baby in her arms. The baby laughed joyfully at what I took to be the sight of his nan. The phrase "the babe leaps up on his mother's arm" came to my mind. And at that same moment I thought: "That baby, growing up here, will never read Wordsworth." That is when I decided to try to get great books out of the university and into the hands of people who need them, by creating The Reader. I wanted a reading revolution. For me, literature isn't a luxury that you can choose or not, it's the source of that life-changer, imagination. As a child, literature gave me role models and possible worlds. As an adult, it expands my consciousness, putting my mind inside the experience of others. Which is what we all need. "A tough life needs a tough language," says Jeanette Winterson. "That's what literature offers. It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place." The Reader helps people find the literature that will find them by building shared reading groups. Groups meet weekly, a trained reader leader will have chosen something to read, and will read it aloud. Other group members take a turn with the reading, if they want, or simply listen, as they choose. We have read with thousands of people who would never have thought that literature - that fancy-pants stuff - had anything to offer them. But shared reading means you don't need to be a good reader, literary or even literate, to enjoy the emotional and intellectual stimulation of George Saunders, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Winterson, John Clare or any other greats. It's for everyone. Nicky, at an addiction centre, found her own experience in John Clare's poem, I Am!: I am - yet what I am none cares or knows; My friends forsake me like a memory lost: I am the self-consumer of my woes - They rise and vanish in oblivious host, Like shadows in love's frenzied stifled throes And yet I am, and live - like vapours tossed Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, Into the living sea of waking dreams, Where there is neither sense of life or joys, But the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems; Even the dearest that I loved the best Are strange - nay, rather, stranger than the rest. "The poem hit me right there," she said (pointing to her heart). "I'm literally vapours and I feel like a shipwreck. The things I used to esteem in my life are no longer there and I've been forsaken by a lot of people - I am a bit of a memory lost really, but no one really cares or wants to know." We run groups in prisons, work in dementia care, schools and libraries. We've been commissioned through NHS mental health budgets, in chronic pain clinics, by public health, through addiction services and in workplaces. Under continued austerity, we need to depend less on public money and more on the thousands of individuals who want to, and can help, make the reading revolution happen. Beginning this month, we are building the foundation for a national movement of shared reading. Over the next three years, we're going to recruit 500 volunteers across the north west. Lots of these people will be "reader leaders", leading the weekly groups, powered by their passionate commitment to the value of great books. Within five years, we plan to have more than 2,000 shared reading groups, where more than 20,000 people will be reading together. I hope that the babe who leapt up will be among them.

Share |