Sharing the making of meaning

Jane Davis
Opinion - Libraries Wednesday, 29th September 2010

The 'reading cure' has been embraced by the lonely, the old and the sick, as the Reader Organisation despatches people into the community to read to those who can no longer read for themselves or who have never been able to do so. An anthology published today contains a selection of poetry and prose for reading aloud, and BookBrunch, which has chronicled Reader Organisation initiatives these past two years, is pleased to bring you the book's Introduction by Dr Jane Davis (left). Shared Reading, Shared Meaning Nearly thirty years ago the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing answered one of my youthful questions with a question of her own. I was, in a state of great awe, putting the beautiful and distinguished writer, my hero, and old enough to be my mother, on a train at the end of her first visit to Liverpool. She had been a storyteller who had captivated and deeply affected me; I had invited her to visit and talk, and now, in these final precious moments at Lime Street Station, I wanted and was implicitly demanding, as I €™m sure she understood, some final concluding and very meaningful remarks from her. So my question will have been almost childishly unanswerable, something along the lines of 'What does it all mean.' Ridiculously unanswerable, and yet she did answer €“ with a question fired right back at me.


'What are human beings for?' she said, giving me that gimlet eye contact of hers.
Her question stayed with me, and has woven itself into the nature and fabric of the Reader Organisation, and, indirectly, into this book.
It is not a question with one single answer. But part of the answer is about making meaning. Form follows function, great designers tell us, and when we think about what we do, as human beings, what function we perform in the world, one of the key things that we do all the time, each and every one of us, is to discover, invent, construct, or make meaning. Listen to any two people talking on the Tube or in a bar or as they stand in a supermarket queue and what you will hear are stories, interrogations, people using language to prod reality and see what can be made of it.
'Did she?'
'She did! You wouldn €™t believe it.'
'What a cheek!'
'I know! So I said...'
We find it fascinating. We are stories; we exist to make meaning. Even when we are alone, that insistent narrative voice is telling stories about what we are doing, thinking, feeling, and commentating on it all, too: now I am entering the train station, there €™s a man who looks like a banker, ridiculously affected red scarf; here €™s a girl going home for the holidays; now I am stepping onto the train; there €™s a woman who looks very smart and very nervous, perhaps she is going for an interview € and so on and on and on, the inner voice that talks to us, at us, in us, all the time €“ individual consciousness.
We have what amounts to a biological need to make meaning. It starts in us, not in books. And while it begins in individual experience, that consciousness needs to make social connections. A solitary experience is intuited as valuable largely by the sense of the impact it will have when we get back home again and can share it with friends and family. The act of sharing the story €“ letting the story out into the world €“ confirms to us our inward sense of self, and lays the groundwork for self-worth and our personal relation to the world. When we can €™t make meaning €“ because life is too hard, or too barren, or because we are too emotionally or psychologically damaged, or because physical degeneration makes memory-connection impossible €“ we tend to break down, physically, mentally or spiritually. Some doctors now think that the way in which we each understand our own 'story' contributes to our health or the lack of it: narrative medicine is taught in the most forward-looking medical schools. And this is one reason why we find dementia frightening: without cohesive stories the nature of our individual identity seems deeply threatened.
If the impulse to make or listen to stories is, as it were, natural, then written language €“ literary stories and poetry €“ capture this natural function and harness it in ways that make it more obviously useful, just as cultivation has made wild plants more useful and productive. When human beings created written language, about 4,000 years ago, we invented a system for keeping track of actual things: the first writings, scratched in clay, were lists of objects: bushels of corn, pitchers of wine. But, almost as soon as this mind-expanding, economy-growing invention had come about, a great natural storyteller €“ the first anon €“ realised that this new technology could be used to shape and record (perhaps also to grow) the inner life as well as the material world.The Epic of Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets in Sumer around 3,000 BC, tells the story of Enkidu and his battle against the trials of life and the gods. Human beings have been writing stories and poems down ever since. For most of human culture stories, and in particular written stories, have been connected to spiritual understandings. The first great books were religious books, and in many cultures, writing itself was seen as God-given. People read these books aloud and shared the meanings they created. From the start, reading was about creating meaning.
Reading Aloud
People who were lucky enough to be read to as children know that listening to someone read is one of the deepest sources of comfort humans have. Nourishing and replenishing, it is like being fed. There €™s a sense €“ as with physical food €“ that someone is looking after you, that you can relax into a more passive state, trusting that another creature will care for you. It is a different experience to that of reading to oneself. Being removed from the need to take in and translate the marks on the page gives an immense freedom and ease: the mind and imagination can move freely and at leisure. Part of this comes from the slowness of the human voice, operating at perhaps a quarter of the speed of the competent silent reader. When we read privately the eye goes too quickly, is too greedy for what happens next and what it all means. On the one hand, we have the excitement of narrative pull; on the other, things are happening so fast we hardly know what €™s going on. But when we are engaged at the pace of the speaking voice, we feel more the consequence of the story. It grows deeper and more real. Being part of the creation of meaning through text and voice develops a powerful human connection between reader and listener. There are times for all adults when the security of knowing that someone else will help with the most basic needs €“ human sustenance €“ is an incomparable comfort and form of trust. We need meaning, and shared reading offers us a form by which that biological function can naturally take place.
But adults, and sadly also many children, are rarely read to. This is a two-sided loss, for while being read to may be comforting, relaxing and sustaining for the listener, for the reader it can also be a source of generous delight. You €™ll enjoy it! And that €™s good for you. In devising the 'Five Ways to Wellbeing' project, the New Economics Foundation has formulated the mental equivalent to five portions of fruit and vegetables: to keep healthy, we are reminded, we need to remember to connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and to give. Reading aloud ticks at least four of these five boxes, and for both parties.
The Reading Revolution
The Reader Organisation €“ as I write, a national charity with 30 staff €“ was born in the spring of 1997 with the first issue of The Reader magazine. My colleagues Sarah Coley, Angela Macmillan and myself had been teaching Continuing Education literature classes at the University of Liverpool for some time. We were reading across the literary spectrum from Chaucer to Philip Roth via Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Seamus Heaney, A'S Byatt and the Bront s, not as academic experts, but as people sharing a reading experience; we were reading aloud to bring the books to life in the room, and talking about what we were reading with groups of people who typically weren €™t literature students but who were willing and adventurous readers. We felt something exciting was happening in our classes but we didn €™t know what. So we decided we wanted to share the excitement with a wider audience. The idea was that The Reader magazine could be a written version of what we were experiencing in class and it was an attempt to get that kind of experience out of Liverpool and into the wider world of readers. At the very moment that many within the literary and academic establishment were mourning the loss of the 'general reader', we seemed to be finding that mythical creature in new ways.
We still publish The Reader magazine but these days the main work of the Reader Organisation is to run more than 200 weekly shared reading groups in the UK and to support the developing movement in the rest of the world. We work with GPs, care assistants, firefighters, youth workers, psychiatrists, teachers, prison officers, and many other people, to get reading into places where it €™s currently not much experienced. This is what we call 'the reading revolution', bringing great writing to life and putting good reading into the hands of people who need it €“ pretty much most of us, in my experience. We are building the revolution with a project called Get Into Reading, which uses a shared reading model €“ reading aloud together and talking about it €“ based on that early work at University of Liverpool.
Our work has always had a 'great books' flavour to it: we are not just about developing literacy, or getting more people reading, but also about opening access to a great tradition of literature: what Doris Lessing, in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech called ' €˜the great treasure house of literature'. There it is, thousands of years of great writing! This treasure house is an amazingly rich resource, but it has become increasingly cut off and esoteric for many readers, as if it was meant for others, or is simply to difficult, or not immediate enough to claim and keep our ordinary attention. Often, in the name of an attempt at liberal inclusivity, educators and literacy promoters have looked to 'relevance' as a way of identifying books more suitable for people: there has long been an anti-canon feeling among the educated classes, as if great writing is not, by definition, relevant. This is a terrifying waste of human capital. Can you imagine food experts who told us not to bother with fresh vegetables because fast food was more relevant to most people? It was not always so. In his great history, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes Jonathan Rose records the feelings of many people, first-time readers, as they experienced the great richness that reading has to offer. Richard Hillyer a cowman €™s son, born 1900, writes:
Education began for me (with the poets). I was fascinated. My mind was being broken out of its shell. Here were wonderful things to know. Things that went beyond the small utilities of our lives, which was all that school had seemed to concern itself with until then. Knowledge of this sort could make all time, and places, your own. You could be anybody, and everybody, and still be yourself all that time. It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.
That is the reading revolution we want to bring about: to break the shells that contain us, to free our minds, to come up from the bottom of the ocean. Richard Hillyer €™s brilliant phrase is so revealing, 'And still be yourself all that time'. You meet all this wonder with yourself, and a self that is all the time growing. Books of all sorts can help us do that: great writing gives us access to the multifarious forms of meaning. But let €™s not just talk about it, let me give some examples from real life.
Tennyson and 'Ulysses' in a Care Home
A project worker in Get Into Reading had been reading with a group of people in a care home. After some weeks she decided to read Tennyson €™s great poem on old age, 'Ulysses', which ends:
Come, my friends.
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are:
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

In the group are people who have serious, life-ending diseases, who have suffered the indignities and disablings of strokes or other serious illnesses, whose life-partners have died, who no longer have the identity of their work or family life, who are 'made weak by time and fate'. In this context, the poem feels huge and rather dangerous: close to the bone. As the poem sinks in and discussion develops, Molly says the poem is about being old but not giving in and thinking this is the end and that €™s that. Asked which lines she thought most true she says 'that which we are, we are'. 'You can €™t change things,' she says, 'this is it now, you just have to get on with it.' Tommy, a man in his nineties, now barely able to speak, but decorated as a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War, agrees with her. He says, 'You need courage and willpower and love to go on facing life'. Penny (who had been delighted to find that Ulysses €™ wife was called Penelope), on understanding that the poem was written in response to the death of Tennyson €™s friend Arthur Hallam, says that having lost her husband two years ago she could understand the line 'tho €™ much is taken, much abides'.
Wordsworth and the new baby
A professional woman in her thirties has just had her first baby. She €™s spent months in conversation on Mumsnet and thought she knew what having a baby would mean. She is not surprised by lack of sleep and the chaos of objects this new creature has brought to her living room. But no one had touched on the emotional and psychological, perhaps even spiritual, truths that Wordsworth offers about a new baby. Yes, there is much screaming and anxiety but also there is the sense of wonder. The new mum lies on a sofa as her own mother reads:
blest the Babe,
Nursed in his Mother's arms, who sinks to sleep
Rocked on his Mother's breast; who with his soul
Drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye!
For him, in one dear Presence, there exists
A virtue which irradiates and exalts
Objects through widest intercourse of sense.
No outcast he, bewildered and depressed:
Along his infant veins are interfused
The gravitation and the filial bond
Of nature that connect him with the world.
...Emphatically such a Being lives,
Frail creature as he is, helpless as frail,
An inmate of this active universe:
For, feeling has to him imparted power
That through the growing faculties of sense
Doth like an agent of the one great Mind
Create, creator and receiver both.

'An inmate of this active universe,' says the new mother, looking into her son €™s blue eyes. 'Creator and receiver both is right €“ you can see he is already learning things.' Mother and grandmother watch the baby wave his frail arms, violently kick his skinny legs.' €˜Emphatically such a Being lives.' 'I like that,' says the mother. 'He is really, really here.'
A Stroke and The Secret Garden
A woman lies on a bed. She has suffered a stroke and nine months on is unable to move her limbs or to speak. Her sister sits in an armchair by the window. She is sewing under a lamp as the darkness gathers outside. A Get Into Reading project worker sits by the bed reading aloud from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. All three are intent upon the old children €™s story. The atmosphere is warm and calm and when the reader finishes reading for the day, all three have gained something from this simple, pleasurable activity €“ relaxation, comfort, mental simulation, a general sense of well-being. For twenty minutes in a difficult day the book has brought three people close in shared experience of the story.
'Invictus' and Domestic Violence
Kelly had been meeting weekly with Barbara, who is barely literate and who has suffered a difficult and undermining relationship with her long-term partner. Each week, following their shared reading, Kelly would ask, 'Did you like that, Barbara?' and Barbara would always reply,' €˜I don €™t know.' One day Kelly took W E Henley €™s poem 'Invictus' and she and Barbara each took a turn to read this determinedly affirmative piece of English literature.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow'd.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

After they had read the poem together a few times, Kelly asked Barbara if she liked the poem and this time she replied that yes, she did. Asked if there were any particular lines that she especially liked and she again said yes, proceeding to read them out again of her own accord €“' €˜I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.' Kelly asked her why she liked those lines. At first Barbara reverted to her familiar response of 'I don €™t know.' But when Kelly asked her how reading those lines made her feel, she said, 'It makes me feel happy.' Through this poem Barbara had discovered, probably for the first time in her life, a genuine interest in and personal enjoyment of a piece of literature which she not only read but also had the confidence and desire to express an opinion about. Many readers will know that the poem was one that supported and encouraged Nelson Mandela during his years of imprisonment on Robben Island.

Is This Book For Me?
So is this the book for you? If you have a friend or relative or someone you care for, personally or professionally, with whom you have or want to have good fun and serious conversation, or share memories, fantasies and feelings, then the answer is yes, it €™s a good place to start. You might not be into poetry €“ statistics tell us there are actually more writers of poetry than readers of it €“ but the fact that you €™ve picked this book up is a sign that you may be open to the possibility. Poetry is easier than you think €“ just start reading in your normal voice and keep going...then ask yourself if you liked it at the end. Whatever the answer is, read it again!
The Reader Organisation €™s shared reading model brings people together to share the making of meaning, and this book is a piece of equipment that will enable you do that in your own individual way. Going back to the story has been a catchphrase with the Reader Organisation since its inception. Because, as Mrs Lessing taught me all those years ago, that €™s what we do, that €™s what we naturally do.
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 today by Chatto & Windus.