At rare off-duty times during lockdown, two moments from novels have repeatedly come to mind. One is Arthur Clennam’s imprisonment in the Marshalsea towards the close of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit: ‘None of us clearly know to whom or to what we are indebted … until some marked stop in the whirling wheel of life brings the right perception with it. It comes with sickness, it comes with sorrow, it comes with the loss of the dearly loved, it is one of the most frequent uses of adversity’. The other is from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace where Pierre Bezukhov, in prison in Moscow under conditions of severe hardship, ‘for the first time’ appreciates (‘now that he was deprived of all this’) the freedom he has enjoyed to direct his own purposes. Day-dreaming on the time when he will be free, he ‘achieves the tranquillity and ease of mind he had formerly striven in vain to reach’ – a peace which deserts him as soon as life again becomes a burdensome matter of choice.

Many people have found that the very restrictions of lockdown have brought a kind release  – ‘head space’, ‘time to think’, the chance for clarity and the ‘right perception’ about what we value.  But these passages, I felt, weren’t simply confirming that this hiatus was good for me. They were making good and bad a puzzling paradox. Arthur Clennam’s case says, this ‘stop’ might indeed be good, but you would never have chosen it. Who would? ‘Adversity’ is what we avoid at all costs; we don’t seek it out for its ‘uses’. And Pierre Bezukhov’s example warns of the difficulty of remembering anything restriction has taught when life returns to normal! As my teacher Brian Nellist once put it: Literature doesn’t give answers; what it can do is put questions in ways which make their insolubility more tolerable.

I was lucky and grateful that these books found me when I needed them, as reminder, caution, forgiveness. In her autobiographical memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson writes that, when her adoptive mother ‘Mrs Winterson’ burned the great literary works whose ‘tough language’ had been her ‘medicine’, ‘the books were gone’ but ‘what they held was already inside me’. ‘You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work.’

For the last decade, (with colleagues at the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society, CRILS), I have been carrying out research on reading and mental health with UK charity The Reader whose mission is to get great literature ‘inside’ everyone, by taking books to those who need them. The Reader’s award-winning Shared Reading model is unique. Each week, small groups, led by a trained volunteer, gather in a range of health, social care, community and secure settings to read aloud, together, short stories, novels and poetry, and to reflect on and weigh their meaning. The reading material ranges across genres and period, and is chosen for its intrinsic interest, not pre-selected for a particular ‘condition’. Yet CRILS’ research shows that shared literary reading helps people in trouble or distress by putting them in touch with resonant areas of deep self and by offering a personal language for complex emotional matter.  Central to this effect is the coalescing presence of the literature, read aloud live and performatively in the room, as the vocal-emotional key to everything. I asked Clare Ellis, Head of Learning at The Reader, to report for this blog on how the organization had kept Shared Reading ‘live’ during lockdown.

Shared Literature Life Lines in Lockdown

With the closing of our Shared Reading groups in March, we asked ourselves, dazedly, What would the impact on members of our community be if they could no longer read together in person?  Using online technology had never occurred to us. Our in-person model had worked successfully for over a decade and human connection – between the individual reader, the book and the group – was its purpose. Doing this ‘remotely’ was wholly counter-intuitive.  Yet abandoning the people who had come to rely on this weekly connection was not an option.

As a first step, The Reader began delivering Zoom Shared Reading sessions for all volunteer Reader Leaders across the country twice a week. Experiencing online Shared Reading as a participant in the first instance proved to be the best encouragement (and technological training) for Reader Leaders who are now delivering it themselves. At the same time, we used the online medium to broaden our provision more widely in the community, launching a new service, ‘The Reader at Home’ to ‘bring literature to life in your home, wherever you are’. The public programme includes daily video readings, featured poems, a specially curated series of ‘Bread & Roses’ digital collections and twice-weekly Facebook Live Shared Reading sessions. A new audio feature – Places to Go, People to See – posts an audio recording from a novel to our website which keeps the human reading voice vital and visual at once.

The flexibility of online provision has widened the reach of Shared Reading in new and unexpected ways, including to first-time beneficiaries who may not have been able to attend a group physically, either because they live in remote areas or for reasons of social anxiety, health, disability. One social care partner reported the ‘sense of purpose, knowledge and wonder’ experienced by home-bound participants who became part of a digital reading group, as well as the positive effect on carers who have found a new source of peer support. Our digital service is also crossing cultures and nationalities as local membership is expanded to new audiences. One Reader Leader linked her Zoom group to a carers’ network as part of National Carers’ Week and now has a group member joining from the Philippines.

While lockdown has stimulated extension of The Reader’s reach, connecting with some of our customary beneficiaries via Zoom – people living in care homes or mental health settings, or those vulnerably housed – was and is a challenge. In addition to embracing the digital revolution, therefore, we have also returned to older technologies. Having begun a new partnership with the vulnerably housed to deliver short Shared Reading sessions over the telephone, we now offer this service nationally to all partners and individuals across the UK who feel they, or someone they know, could benefit. We have also created an alternative new print resource – Life Lines – which can be physically posted to people who may not be able to access our online services.

A GP in Shropshire who leads a Shared Reading group of eight people (the oldest being 93) which normally meets in a community centre, has recreated the group atmosphere during lockdown in weekly emails to group members. These contain not only the stories and poems (including slightly longer texts than a 90-minute session could do justice to) but also imaginative description of the sights, sounds (and tastes!) that make a typical Shared Reading group what it is: ‘the biscuits; the slow careful reading; the voices, smiles, and interjections’. Over seven weeks, the group has read selections from George Eliot, Wendell Berry, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Jhumpa Lahiri and shared their responses by emailing back. 

Reader Leaders now tell us that these alternative modes of delivery need not be regarded as temporary but could be advantageous additions to service as usual. So it is that we have come to view digital technology in a new light. The Reader online is no stop-gap, but a lifeline.

Josie Billington is Professor in English at the University of Liverpool where she specializes in Victorian Literature and literary reading and mental health. Clare Ellis is Head of Learning and Quality at The Reader.