‘If we all read aloud each day, the world would be a better place,’ Philip Pullman has said. He’s preaching to the converted, as far as I am concerned: my 10 year-old and I studiously ignore the fact he can read perfectly well by himself in order to go on working happily through books together at bedtime. It’s acceptable to read aloud to children – even, just about, to 10 year-olds – yet there is much less reading aloud these days among adults. It’s odd that it has become so unfashionable and forgotten an activity, given the success of audio books and of book groups, which prove that much of the pleasure of reading lies in sharing your reactions with others. I have to confess to being a bit of an eccentric in the reading aloud department: when I had my first child, I was so disconcerted by the long hours of sitting still with my hands full of baby that I insisted on being read to while I was breastfeeding, and got through the whole of Middlemarch. (I was living in the Middle East at the time and there was absolutely nothing on the telly. The enterprise ended when we moved on to Wuthering Heights and found that, for some reason I never quite got to the bottom of, that it was much less conducive to being spoken aloud. Later, I am pleased to say, I mastered the tricky art of reading while feeding.)
Until recently, though, it hadn’t occurred to me that reading aloud was a perfect pastime for older people. Listening to the written word in the company of others and discussing what you have heard is about as un-patronising an activity as you could find: democratic, shared, and exhilarating, allowing individuals to find meaning together, to make connections and uncover memories.
In a public library in Bow, East London, a group is gathering under the aegis of Get Into Reading, a charitable project that also runs regular read-aloud groups in care homes, hospitals, homeless shelters, doctors’ surgeries, schools and offices. Nearly 200 of their groups meet regularly in the UK, mainly concentrated in Merseyside and London at the moment but spreading fast. This one has been meeting for about 18 months and its members have read Animal Farm, Silas Marner and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy; they are currently about two thirds of the way through Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. Sheila, who is 70, arrives with hyacinth bulbs for the other members. Louise, 81, shows us the new cardigan she has bought in the market; there’s an unhurried exchange of news, some tea and biscuits; then Penny Markell, who runs the group, reads several pages before breaking off and letting everyone talk about the passage. The discussion ranges over the cruelty being shown to the street dwelling characters, what it’s like to feel out of control of your situation and sleeping with people who snore. Everyone has something to say, but there’s no pressure; Penny makes everyone feel valued, every comment an addition. Members can take turns to read aloud if they want but not everyone does; it would be perfectly possible to come to this group and take an active part if you could not read at all. Reading aloud groups are open to all, and members can come and go: being in the afternoon, this one tends to attract older people and those who aren’t working.
The Reader Organisation, the charity behind the reading groups, is this week publishing A Little, Aloud, an anthology of prose and poetry particularly suited to being read aloud (not Wuthering Heights, then). The publishers advertise the book as offering selections to read ‘to someone you love – to your husband or wife, a sick parent or child, an elderly relative. Or to someone who finds it hard to concentrate for long, someone who finds reading difficult, or simply someone who has never been given the chance to get into a really good book.’ Jane Davis, a literature professor at the University of Liverpool, founded The Reader Organisation because she felt strongly that the pleasures of literature shouldn’t be exclusive or elitest. It seemed to her not only unfair, but wrong, that the pleasures and insights to be derived from reading George Eliot or Tobias Wolff or WB Yeats should only be available to literature students. On its website, the charity claims: ‘The Reader Organisation’s ethos is that literature is not an aesthetic experience but practical help for being human’ – although that seems a false dichotomy; I should have thought the two things were interdependent and mutually reinforcing.
Perhaps what they mean, though, is that literature doesn’t have to be stuffy. Good writing evokes personal responses in anyone who hears it. You don’t need jargon to express the thoughts and feelings it inspires in you, nor to understand what it has precipitated in other people if they take the trouble to tell you. As a tool for bringing together the socially isolated, reading aloud would seem to be extremely powerful. Certainly, the publicity material for A Little, Aloud carries the endorsement of a leading psychiatrist, who calls The Reader Organisation’s work ‘one of the most significant developments [in] mental health practice in the last 10 years.’ The University of Liverpool is currently trying to make a more concrete assessment of its therapeutic value. I am already persuaded, needless to say, because I find it hard to think of many better routes to emotional, social and moral development than reading literature, but I’ve already admitted I’m eccentric. More importantly, Sheila and Louise and the rest of their group are very much cheered up by meeting once a week to work their way through exciting and demanding and rewarding books. Sheila began coming when she moved to east London to be near her son and knew no one else nearby, Louise when her husband died last year. ‘We have a really nice time,’ Louise says. ‘It’s something to look forward to. We giggled our way through A Hitchhiker’s Guide and we’re really enjoying this one. It’s often sad, but it’s really interesting, and we have some really good chats about it.’
A Little, Aloud: an anthology of prose and poetry for reading aloud to someone you care for, edited by Angela Macmillan with The Reader Organisation, is published by Chatto & Windus on 30th September.
There will be a London launch of A Little, Aloud, featuring a panel discussion featuring Angela Macmillan, Jane Davis and Blake Morrison, patron of Get Into Reading, with readings by Richard Briers and Joanna Trollope at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, Monday 4th October at 6.30pm (call 020 7851 2400 to book your place).