Posts Tagged Book Group
I’ve run a book group for several years and hearing several different opinions of the same book is always a fascinating experience. A book’s themes often lead to interesting conversations and we usually have a laugh too.
However, recently I’ve discovered an alternative type of group; Shared Reading.
Shared Reading is championed and supported by the charitable organisation The Reader. The charity “builds warm and lively communities by bringing people together and books to life”.
The groups are free to join and open to all. However many of the groups are located in places to help those living with conditions such as dementia, complex mental health issues and chronic pain, as well as those recovering from addiction or feeling lonely.
The groups meet on a weekly basis and all the reading is done out loud during the session, with both the group leader and the participants doing the reading. At appropriate points in the poem, short story or prose extract there will be a pause and the leader will start a conversation about the text. Group members might talk about the impact the words have on them, their interpretation of the text or simply whether they are enjoying it or not. No one is forced to contribute or to read aloud but it’s hoped that the groups’ inclusive atmosphere gives everyone’s voice and opinion a chance to be heard and appreciated.
This week I had the chance to shadow the leader of two Shared Reading groups in north Birmingham; one in a care home for the elderly and another in a community centre. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time.
The older people looked at two poems: New Every Morning by Susan Coolidge and Moon Compasses by Robert Frost. It was a lovely to hear the positive message they took from the first poem about each new day offering a new beginning. The second poem took more concentration but the description of love at the end pleased them all.
The community centre group were looking at the chapter, ‘Mother’, in Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. They had looked at the first half of the chapter the previous week but I was soon brought up to speed. We talked about the chaotic home over which Laurie’s mum presided and her constant hope that one day the husband who’d walked on her would return. The session finished with the poem My Heart Leaps Up by William Wordsworth and us agreeing that even though we are no longer children, it’s still lovely to see things in nature that bring us joy.
These groups are a million miles away from a school English Literature lesson. They are all about personal interpretations of the texts and how they make us feel.
All the Shared Reading group leaders are volunteers and have been specially trained for the task. I’m contemplating putting myself forward.
The brilliant thing about book clubs is the encouragement and opportunity to read books outside your comfort zone – that’s how I found myself reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.
It’s a thick book written over 100 years ago and viewed by some as a classic. It has much to say in favour of socialism and the edition I read had an introduction by Tony Benn. However it is possible to push the politics to one side and read it as a piece of social history.
The story centres around a group of painters and decorators living in poverty. They are in and out of work depending on the season and very badly treated by their rich, fat cat employers. Health and safety is non-existent and this is long before the safety net of the welfare state and the NHS. The book follows these wretched men and their families over a twelve month period, contrasting their circumstances with those of their bosses.
I found the first chapter hard going – there were far too many characters introduced all at once. But I persevered and the subsequent chapters focused in on individuals which made the going easier. I became fond of Owen, the deep thinker of the group, and young Bert, who worked for nothing in an exchange for an ‘apprenticeship’ which taught him only the skills of being a dogsbody. I also felt for their wives, who often went without food so that their children and husband could eat.
Verdict: It took me three weeks to read the book and only 30% of the book club members stuck with it all the way through. It made me incredibly glad that I wasn’t born 100 years earlier into a society that had to live hand to mouth. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not a ‘good’ read but I’m very glad I’ve read it – in the same way that I’m often very glad I’ve been to the gym even though pounding the treadmill or doing sit-ups was not a good experience.
Toby’s Room by Pat Barker was the latest read at the library book club where I am a volunteer coordinator. It generated an interesting discussion on a range of topics.
Toby’s Room is set during the first world war. Toby and Elinor are siblings and have a very close relationship. Toby goes off to be a war medic and is declared missing in action. Elinor is desperate to find out what has happened to him.
Toby was a papyrus twin. This means his twin died in the womb and as Toby continued to grow he compressed and flattened the dead foetus. So we talked about the effect on a surviving twin when his sibling dies at or before birth. One of our group surprised us by revealing that she was a twin and her sister was stillborn. Throughout her life she has always felt something was missing and she’s also felt guilty that she may have caused the death of her sister by ‘stealing all the goodness’ in the womb. She remembers in her childhood this being said aloud in her presence.
Many of the characters in Toby’s Room are artists and eventually Elinor gets a job drawing wounded soldiers who have terrible, disfiguring facial wounds. The hospital where she works and the artist and surgeon that she works with are real people and details can be found in the Gillies Archives. So we talked about the horrors of war and the advancement of surgical techniques.
We also talked about a scene in the book where Toby’s uniform is sent home in a parcel. When it is opened the smell of the battlefield fills the nostrils. It’s difficult to imagine the terrible emotions this would evoke in a family.
In our group the book got a mostly positive response. We thought the first half was particularly good and enthralling. The second half seemed to be dragged out a little and some thought the ending was too sudden. The reader does find out what happened to Toby – but I won’t spoil it by telling you!
We all agreed that we had learned something new about World War I from the book and that it had definitely been worth reading. If you’re in a book group, Toby’s Room is a good choice.
And if you’re thinking of writing rather than reading a novel, you might be interested in this Online Novel Writing Master Class with Bonus Manuscript Critique for £29 from Amazon Local.