What makes us share things with strangers that we have never told our closest friends? How can people with nothing in common immediately find a talking point? How can a short meeting once a week improve mental health, drastically reduce isolation and create stronger communities across the country and beyond?
That’s the simple magic of reading.
At Pembroke House, we’re always looking for ways to bring together diverse groups of people from the Walworth community. That’s why we were so excited at the prospect of a new group, hosted by volunteers from The Reader organisation.
In 2008, The Reader realised that shared reading can be a powerful tool for improving wellbeing and building social networks. They provide training and support for people to read great literature aloud together, working with everyone from looked-after children to adults living with dementia and recovering from substance misuse.
The model is simple: a weekly meeting, often accompanied by a cup of tea and a biscuit, in which the ‘Reader Leader’ shares a story and a poem with the rest of the group. If participants would like to, they can take it in turns to read aloud, but nobody is pressured to speak. At regular intervals, the group will pause, reflect, and share any thoughts or memories the passage has opened up.
Although the groups themselves are modest and unassuming, the results are anything but. Shared reading has been shown to significantly reduce dementia symptoms; increase wellbeing for sufferers of depression, and improve mood and quality of life for people living with chronic pain.
Pembroke House - which has become embedded in the Walworth community
I hoped that listening to books being read might help to improve my focus again
So what does all this look like in practice? I sat down with Carol, one of the two volunteers coordinating the Pembroke House reading group, to discuss mental health and magic dust. She began by telling me how she first got involved with the Reader Organisation:
“A few years ago, I experienced a mental breakdown and was suffering from severe depression.
"It took a year of medication and therapy before I started to face the world again."
That’s when she met Marcela Vielman, Community Coordinator at Talking Therapies Southwark for the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, who is based part-time at Pembroke House.
“Marcela told me she was hoping to start a reading group. She had met someone who had been officially trained by the Reader Organisation, but needed someone to assist him.
"I had always loved creative activities, including reading and theatre. One of the distressing things about my breakdown was that I found it hard to focus and concentrate for more than ten or fifteen seconds at a time.
"I’d gone from being someone who devoured a book each week to someone who barely read the headlines of the Metro.
"I hoped that listening to books being read might help to improve my focus again.”
Carol, left, leads the group through on their latest literary adventure
It was like someone had taken a bit of magic dust and sprinkled it in the room
Carol's journey started at Camberwell Library, where she attended a couple of sessions led by the Reader Organisation. But what first appealed to her?
"I was amazed to see how people who wouldn’t normally chat suddenly had something in common, a shared point of interest.
"It was like someone had taken a bit of magic dust and sprinkled it in the room.
"The same piece of text can mean completely different things to different people just because of where they are in their lives and their previous experiences.
"You get little thought explosions going on in your head when you hear words: ‘that situation reminds me of…’ and ‘oh, I’d never thought of it like that…’.
"There’s something powerful when language is read aloud – you hear it in a different way. Words that you thought meant one thing suddenly come alive really differently, simply because someone else has spoken them.’”
The Reader Organisation are the driving force behind shared reading
Inspired by what she’d seen and heard, Carol agreed to start a reading group at Pembroke House, which is now in its second month. Already, Carol is noticing a change in some of the readers:
“It’s lovely watching people who didn’t say anything when they first came along, and who are now starting to participate. Shared reading is a wonderful vehicle, because you can get involved as much as you like or just sit back and enjoy the storytelling.
"I love it when people pick out a word or phrase you hadn’t noticed and offer a completely new reading of it. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. It’s their interpretation and it’s completely valid.”
We’re really excited to see how the group evolves over the next few months. If you’d like to get involved, please call Pembroke House on 020 7703 3803, or just turn up any Friday at 11.00 and experience for yourself the magic of shared reading.