READERS UNITE! Final Report

READERS UNITE! CONSIDERATIONS FOR A POTENTIAL NETWORK OF BOOK CLUBS IN PRINCE GEORGE, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Melinda J. Worfolk, The College of New Caledonia

April 2013

Introduction
It is no overstatement to say that reading and discussing literature can be transformative (Polleck, 2012; Wilson, 2009). As an English instructor, I have had many students tell me that their views on a topic (e.g. gender issues, Aboriginal history, people with disabilities) changed after reading and discussing a novel. Many of my students have said, “I never thought about it this way before,” or “This book opened my eyes,” or “I imagined myself in the narratorʼs shoes.”

After spending eight months researching non-classroom based communal reading practices, I am more convinced than ever of the social value of reading and discussing literature. The most common model for such discussion outside of a classroom is a book club or reading group; based on my research, I believe that these structured groups can play a substantial role in creating social cohesion, improving psychological and emotional health, and promoting literacy.

As a community looking to increase social capital, Prince George is ripe for the implementation of a networked system of book clubs.

Benefits of Book Clubs/Reading Groups
Recent research at The Mar Lab (York University) indicates there is a link between reading fiction and developing empathy. Mar and Oatley (2008) posit that narrative fiction acts as a simulation of the real world. As a result, readers can vicariously experience situations they would otherwise not be able to–for example, distant lands, unfamiliar cultures, historical events—or peer into the mind of someone completely different from themselves. Through these simulated experiences, readers may be able to gain insight into their current real life situation, predict and make decisions about the future, and develop empathy for others.

We know, then, that reading fiction is beneficial; what are the additional benefits of post-reading discussion? This is the question researchers have been exploring at the University of Liverpoolʼs Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems. In a study of book club participants undergoing treatment for depression, Hodge, Robinson, and Davis (2007) found that using literature as a basis for discussion (instead of self-help books) allows participants to approach their problems in a more indirect, non-threatening manner. Similarly, in her examination of a prison book club, Billington (2011) found that group reading of literature promoted indirect discussion of issues relevant to the participantsʼ lives. In both groups, readers gained insight into their own lives, formed strong bonds with other participants, and developed more self-confidence.

Much of this reading research at the University of Liverpool has centred around a program called Get Into Reading (GiR). GiR follows a read-aloud model in which participants can take turns reading short works out loud, or simply listen. Reading is followed by discussion of the literature. GiR has done work with groups as diverse as patients with dementia, prisoners, people undergoing treatment for depression, and residents in a homeless shelter. Evaluation reports of GiR programs have provided evidence of its positive effect on participantsʼ mental well-being. For example, in the evaluation of the program for participants with dementia, Billington et al (2012) found that GiR had a significant effect in reducing the severity of symptoms and improving patientsʼ general wellbeing. In two case studies involving patients undergoing treatment for depression, Dowrick et al (2012) found that reading out loud or listening to others read out loud produced relaxation and a reduction in anxiety.

Getting together to discuss literature can help isolated individuals form stronger social bonds and reduce loneliness (Polleck, 2012; Wilson, 2009; Billington, 2011). There is ample evidence to suggest that isolation and loneliness can have serious consequences for emotional, social, and physical health (Hawkley & Cacciopo, 2010). Thus, if book clubs can help alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness among vulnerable populations, they may function as an effective (and inexpensive) preventative measure in terms of the social and physical health of a community.

Reading groups can also function as a bridge between groups who normally do not interact with each other outside of a prescribed professional relationship. For example, Community Book Club (Dale, McGee & Edwards, 2009) is a joint program that successfully united teachers and parents of elementary-aged children in shared family literacy practices. Another project, the Maine Humanities Councilʼs Literature and Medicine program, offers health care professionals of many kinds (e.g. surgeons, nurses, hospital administrators) the chance to meet and discuss literature. According to the Maine Humanities Councilʼs Literature & Medicine Home Page, participants between 2005 and 2008 reported significant increases in areas such as

  • empathy for patients
  • interpersonal skills
  • communication skills
  • job satisfaction
  • cultural awareness.

Finally, no discussion of book clubs or reading groups would be complete without acknowledging the role they can play in the promotion of literacy. Book clubs can be an excellent vehicle for challenging the notion that literacy is something that happens only in the classroom. Through the use of alternate meeting formats, such as the read-aloud option used by Get Into Reading, book clubs can be inclusive of a wide range of literacy levels and can normalize reading for pleasure as a part of healthy everyday life.

In sum, there is a growing body of evidence that group reading, particularly of fiction/narrative, is an effective, relatively inexpensive way to mitigate isolation and loneliness, promote literacy, and improve mental and emotional health.

Meeting Format Options for Book Clubs/Reading Groups
The ideal meeting format for a reading group or book club will depend on participantsʼ needs.

Many book clubs follow a format where members read a novel on their own time and then discuss it together as a group. This works well if

  • members have enough available leisure time to read the texts on their own, outside of the group meetings
  • all members have a high enough literacy level to read the selections on their own
  • meeting frequency leaves enough time between discussions to allow all members to complete the reading
  • group membership is relatively stable.

In an alternative format, group members and/or facilitators volunteer to take turns reading a selection out loud. Discussion then follows. Obviously, the material chosen for this type of format would either need to be shorter (e.g. short stories, poems, essays) or be divided easily into episodic portions (e.g. relatively self-contained chapters of a longer book). This is the format used by the Get Into Reading program, and it is very effective for institutional or agency-based programs. This format is particularly suitable if

  • group members do not have much free time to read material outside the meetings
  • members have varying levels of literacy, or find reading on their own difficult/frustrating
  • meetings are high frequency, for example, once a week
  • group membership is open to drop in participants who may not have had time to prepare for a discussion.

While this format is ideal for groups with varying literacy levels (Billington, 2011) because participants do not need to be able to read in order to participate in listening and discussion, it is also a good option for high-literacy groups with limited time for pleasure reading. For example, professionals in high-pressure fields (e.g. medicine), parents of small children, and caregivers for disabled or elderly family members may all wish to participate in a book club but find it difficult to read an entire novel before the next meeting. Although there is little research on the role of reading out loud for adults (Hodge, Robinson & Davis, 2007), even high-literacy participants have reported taking pleasure in being read to or reading to others (Dowrick et al, 2012).

Practical Considerations for Setting Up a Book Club/Reading Group
All book clubs need, at minimum, an affordable, reliable source for reading materials and an appropriate meeting location. In addition, a book club that decides to use a facilitator will need to find one who is compatible with the group and understands its membersʼ needs.

Reading materials: These are available through several channels, and the best source for the group will depend on how much money the group can spend and whether they wish to keep the books. The Prince George Public Library has excellent free resources for book club materials; the facilitator can reserve book club sets of adult or young adult novels, and individual members may then check out their own copy for six weeks. If group members wish to keep their books, one low-cost option is Books and Company, Prince Georgeʼs independent bookstore, which often has multiple copies of discounted books. Groups who wish to read shorter selections may find it easiest to purchase an anthology of shorter works for each participant; The Reader Organisation (UK) has an anthology specifically geared for this purpose: A Little, Aloud: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry for Reading Aloud to Someone You Care For, by Angela Macmillan. The anthology may be purchased through their website, thereader.org.uk.

Meeting space: Book clubs meet in a wide variety of locations: institutional spaces (e.g. colleges or universities, social service agencies, or hospitals); private spaces (homes, group residences); public spaces (libraries, parks, or community centres); and commercial spaces (cafes or restaurants). Organizers should take into consideration costs, comfort level, and personal goals of the group when choosing a location. For example, a cafe can be a good place to meet for a group whose goal is to integrate members into the community and introduce them to new social meeting spaces. However, if members cannot afford to buy a coffee or snack during the meeting, it may not be a good fit. An institutional space like a social service agency office may be a good location in terms of cost (provided in-kind) and familiarity (clients already know how to get there and it is accessible by public transit), but it may have too many connotations of treatment and clinical interventions for participants to be able to fully relax and enjoy the discussions.

Facilitator: If the facilitator is employed by a host organization or agency as part of a formal book club program, care should be taken to select someone with an appropriate approach and an understanding of the groupʼs goals and needs.

Responsibilities may include

  • recruiting group members
  • maintaining a membership contact list
  • reserving or obtaining sufficient copies of reading material
  • generating a list of choices for reading material
  • preparing some discussion prompts
  • facilitating and guiding discussion; possibly reading out loud
  • referring participants to appropriate social or other supports as necessary.

Although each facilitator will bring his or her own personality and style to book discussions, all facilitators should be able to do the following in order to contribute to the groupʼs success:

  • draw out participantsʼ ideas and opinions
  • ensure that all group members feel comfortable
  • be flexible and allowing discussion to go in unexpected directions if appropriate
  • be able to “read” the group in terms of interpersonal dynamics
  • resolve conflict if it should occur
  • enforce group boundaries
  • celebrate group and individual successes
  • have a flair and enthusiasm for reading out loud (if this is part of the group model).

Some groups may require facilitators to have training in specific skills (e.g. orientation to the corrections system for facilitators working with incarcerated participants or those on parole).

Extras: Food and drink are not mandatory components of book club meetings, but they are a pleasant addition, and can be an effective way to recruit and retain participants. Some groups provide snacks at each meeting, while others reserve them for special occasions, for example, meetings that fall near a holiday or commemorate the end of a season or session. If appropriate, costs can be reduced by having potluck-style snacks (everyone brings a little food or drink to share).

Benefits of a Networked System of Book Clubs
Agencies or organizations planning to run a book club may require (or desire) formal support. One practical, low-cost way to provide groups with this support would be the creation of a local book club network.

Such a network could provide the following benefits:

  • hosting and maintenance of a contact list
  • assistance for agencies wishing to set up a new book club
  • training for new facilitators
  • mentoring and peer support opportunities
  • access to professional development for facilitators
  • resource sharing (e.g. reading materials, trained facilitators)
  • assistance in helping participants transition from one group to another when appropriate

One possibility for training and professional development is an annual conference and training day for facilitators and organizations. This would provide a regular opportunity for networking and knowledge exchange. It would also raise awareness in the larger community about existing book clubs and possibly spark interest for new agencies to develop their own book clubs.

Possible workshop options:

  • building group facilitation skills
  • tips and feedback from a theatre professional on how to read aloud effectively
  • keys to developing good discussion questions
  • addressing participant recruitment and retention
  • tips for choosing appropriate materials; suggested reading lists
  • introduction to resources (e.g. library book club sets; access to experts in relevant fields like mental health, literacy, social services, working with specific cultural groups)
  • training for specific purposes: e.g. Corrections 101; tips on working with mental health or cognitive issues, second language challenges, or low literacy skills.

Potential Members of a Networked Book Club System in Prince George
Several Prince George agencies and organizations have indicated interest in developing their own book clubs; at the same time, most have expressed uncertainty about how to set one up or find someone to facilitate it. Several organizations already run book clubs, but are not connected with other institutional book clubs. The following is an incomplete list of agencies and organizations who should be invited to join such a network.

I have included in italics the names of contacts who have specifically indicated future interest in a book club.

  • Aboriginal Infant and Family Development Program, Prince George Native Friendship Centre (Lynne Brown)
  • Adult Psychiatric Inpatient Unit, University Hospital of Northern BC (Dr. Johannes Giede)
  • AiMHi – Prince George Association for Community Living
  • Alano Club Society
  • Alward Place Seniorsʼ Housing
  • ASAP [Active Support Against Poverty] Housing Society
  • AWAC [Association Advocating for Women and Children], including the Street Humanities Program at the College of New Caledonia
  • BC Cancer Agency Centre for the North
  • Canadian Mental Health Association, Prince George Branch
  • Corrections Canada (Sonja Arsenault)
  • Elizabeth Fry Society of Prince George
  • Immigrant and Multicultural Services Society
  • Northern John Howard Society
  • Phoenix Transition House
  • Prince George Brain Injured Group Society
  • Prince George Council of Seniors, including Elder Citizens Recreation Association and the Hart Pioneer Centre
  • Prince George Public Library (Faith Lloyd; Janet Marren)
  • Prince George Rainbows [Grief Support Program]
  • Youth Around Prince [YAP]

Conclusion
Social change through something as simple as book clubs is, I believe, entirely within reach for the Prince George community. I am posting this report to my research blog in the hope that others will also be able to use it.

The next stage of this project would be the pursuit of funding opportunities and development of a plan for a training conference as described in the section above, “Benefits of a Networked System of Book Clubs/Reading Groups.” I look forward to discovering where Prince George can go next as a united community of readers.

References
Billington, J. (2011). ʻReading for Lifeʼ: Prison reading groups in practice and theory. Critical Survey, 23(3), 67-85.

Billington, J., Carroll, J., Davis, P., Healey, C., Kinderman, P. (2012). A literature-based intervention for older people living with dementia: An evaluation report by the Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems. Liverpool: University of Liverpool.

Dail, A.R., McGee, L.M., Edwards, P.A. (2009). The role of Community Book Club in changing literacy practices. Literacy Teaching and Learning, 13(1-2) 25-56.

Dowrick, C., Billington, J., Robinson, J., Andrew Hamer, A., Williams, C. (2012). Get Into Reading as an intervention for common mental health problems: Exploring catalysts for change. Medical Humanities (38)1, 15-22.

Hawkley, L.C., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2010). Loneliness matters: A theoretical and empirical review of consequences and mechanisms. Annals Of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), 218-227.

Hodge, S., Robinson, J., Davis, P. (2007). Reading between the lines: The experiences of taking part in a community reading project. Medical Humanities (33)2, 100-104.

Maine Humanities Council Website, Literature & Medicine Home Page. Retrieved from http://mainehumanities.org/programs/litandmed/

Mar, R.A., Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, (3)3, 173-192.

Polleck, J. (2012). Creating transformational spaces: High school book clubs with inner-city adolescent females. The High School Journal (93)2, 53-68.

Wilson, S. (2009). Book clubs: Sites of social and transformational learning (Masterʼs project). University of Athabasca, Athabasca, AB.

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