It’s a cold November morning and in a library in London, two men and seven women, all from different walks of life, are gathered round a table, copies of George Eliot’s Middlemarch in hand.
The group is engrossed as the story unfolds, sipping mugs of tea or coffee as they follow the text, some of them taking turns to read, while others prefer just to read along and listen. This is Shared Reading.
Every now and then, the group leader – a volunteer – pauses proceedings and the group reflects on what they’ve just read.
The conversation goes in twists and turns, and some of the group, prompted by the words on the page and the situation in which they find Eliot’s Dorothea, share experiences from their own lives. The quietness of the library is interrupted with their chatter, and thoughtful musings, along with happy shrieks of laughter.
It’s a scene you can come across in local libraries, high street cafes, community centres, hospitals and care homes from Belfast to Pwllheli, and beyond.
More than 600 groups like this happen every week across the UK. Most are led by a growing network of 1,000 volunteers who want to make a difference for people in their local community, while trying something new, making new friends themselves, and getting to read all kinds of stories like their never would have before.
The groups and volunteers are supported by The Reader, a Liverpool-based, national charity that first developed the idea of Shared Reading back in 2002 as a way to improve wellbeing and reduce social isolation.
According to feedback gathered by The Reader earlier this year, 91% of people who come to a Shared Reading groups say that it ‘helps me to feel better’, while 84% say that they had ‘made new friends in the group’.
Jean Huxley, 67, started come to Shared Reading groups after she split with her husband.
“We used to cycle together every day, but after the marriage ended I had to find a new activity and new friends,” she said. “I heard about the Shared Reading groups and went along to the one nearest to me.
“Everyone was so friendly and welcoming. Straight away, I immersed myself in the literature and all my worries melted away. The joy of Shared Reading is that we can stop and express ourselves. It can get quite heated! People can get very involved in the characters.”
Jean now runs a group herself: “It gave so much to me that I wanted to give the same joy back to others.”
Another volunteer, Simon, runs a group as part of a project to create stronger social networks for people who are over 50 across Bristol: “Leading a Shared Reading group is a highlight of the week for me and I know it is for a lot of people who come along. It’s a really stimulating activity, sharing the thoughts and experiences that come from reading a wide variety of texts.
“It’s something that doesn’t require any preparation, so it’s easy to be a part of the group, either regularly or occasionally. There’s a real sense of companionship and fun to the sessions, and I always learn so much.”
Thanks to support from Arts Council England and players of People’s Postcode Lottery and the National Lottery Community Fund, along with a range of other grant funders, commissioners and partners, Shared Reading groups are open to everyone and free to join.
Jane Davis, 64, who founded The Reader to make it possible for all kinds of people to enjoy the experiences that great writers had provided for her, said: “Literature can help people in the thick of life going through really big life changes. Reading shows us how others deal with those experiences and can help us to understand ourselves and others better. It’s a connector and we know that feeling connected to others is vital to our happiness.
“At this time of year – as the days get shorter and darker – the need for connection and meaning-making is, for many of us, at its strongest. Getting together around great literature is an ideal way to meet this need and beat the winter blues. There’s never been a better time to give it a go!”
To find your nearest Shared Reading group, visit thereader.org.uk/find-a-group/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Be part of the story
If you want to do something amazing in your local community, meet new people and develop new skills, visit thereader.org.uk to find out how you can get involved.