Take the reading cure - London event discusses Merseyside initiative

Liz Thomson
News - Books 18 Dec 2008

As Liverpool's year as European Capital of Culture draws to a close along with the National Year of Reading, The Reader Organisation, a community project originated by and based at the University of Liverpool, hopes that a legacy of those two quite separate initiatives might be the nationwide adoption of Get Into Reading, 'a social inclusion project' that aims to restore mental health and a sense of community through the shared reading of good books. Large-scale events have included a series of 'Penny Readings' and 'Food for Thought' lunchtime gatherings, as well as Liverpool Reads and the Liverpool Literary Festival. There is also a magazine, The Reader , published continuously for 11 years.

Get into Reading is a charity funded by the UoL, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, TSB and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, and aims to 'bring about a reading revolution' by making it possible for people from all ages and backgrounds and abilities to 'enjoy and engage' with literature. The initiative began as an outreach programme of the University's Reader Centre, with just one group run by Dr Jane Davies of Birkenhead Library. Three years later, 50 groups were meeting across Merseyside and the Wirral, reaching out to more than 300 weekly readers. A successful volunteer programme, with its own fundraising operation, now supports the project, which has caught the attention of Radio Four and the Guardian, for which Blake Morrison wrote a lengthy, laudatory piece in January this year. He noted that 'the self can get help from a book... but the best kind of help doesn't necessarily come by way of self-help books' and concluded that 'literature's power to heal and console outweighs its power to damage.'

The scheme, which attracts readers from eight to 80 who may be sick, homeless, in rehab or in prison, single parents or socially excluded kids and much besides, has won the Quentin Blake Award 2008 and has been nominated for several others in the fields of health and outreach.

'Bibliotherapy' schemes are not new - a number of library authorities, including Kirklees, Calderdale, Neath and Ayrshire, have tried them out - but none seems to have caught fire in the way that Get Into Reading has. And, on 14 January, 'The Reading Cure - A Conversation', a discussion at London's Wellcome Collection Conference Centre (see Events for full details) between writers and health practitioners, will discuss why it has been so much more successful and how its reach might be extended. The evening is co-hosted by the Reading Organisation and the Lancet, and Dr Davies and Blake Morrison will be among the participants. The late John Boon liked to say the books his firm published were 'better than Valium'; and, laugh as people did at the suggestion, perhaps they were.


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