Annotated Bibliography: Book Clubs

I used this annotated bibliography to keep track of my research during my education leave in 2012-2013.

Feb. 6, 2013

Oatley, K. (2011) Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Oatley’s book, written for a lay audience but with plenty of academic references and annotations, is about how fiction works with our minds. His thesis is that fiction can provide us with a way to explore our emotions and provide us with ways to understand others and navigate various social situations. As he says in his preface, “literary art can improve social abilities…it can move us emotionally, and can prompt changes of selfhood” (ix).

The chapters of this book that may be of most interest to those exploring the value of book clubs are Chapter 7, “Effects of fiction: Is fiction good for you?” and Chapter 8, “Talking about fiction: Interpretation in conversation.” In Chapter 7, Oatley details several experiments that investigated the relationship between reading fiction and having better social abilities. One study, using Baron Cohen’s the Mind-in-the-Eyes test, found that even when controlling for individual differences such as personality traits, there was a positive correlation between how much fiction people read, and how good they were at the Mind-in-the-Eyes test (which measures empathy). Oatley and others in his research group feel that this is explained by the fact that while non-fiction allows readers to learn about a specific topic, the topic one learns about while reading fiction is the social world itself. Another study, by Maja Djikic, explored how reading Chekov’s story “The Lady With the Dog” changed people’s personalities.

Oatley outlines several benefits of reading fiction: “Understanding others, entering their minds,” “Understanding relationships,” getting insight into “Dynamics of interaction in groups,” and insight into “Problems of selfhood.” In detailing these benefits, he references several classics such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Richardson’s Pamela, Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” and the Epic of Gilgamesh in order to illustrate his points. At the end of the chapter, he transitions to the topic of the next by stating that once readers have explored new ideas and feelings, they want to talk about them with other people.

In Chapter 8, “Talking about fiction,” Oatley discusses various reading groups that have emerged from research outlining the benefits of reading and group discussion of literature. Some of these programs are mentioned elsewhere on this blog: for example, Jo Altilia’s Toronto reading group, Literature for Life, which works with marginalized single mothers to open up new opportunities and new insights into their personal lives. Another example is Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey‘s work with prison reading groups. In addition to face to face reading groups, Oatley also references successful online reading groups, including 4 Mystery Addicts, (still going strong at the time of this writing, over 13 years after its inception!). In his section on what makes reading groups (of any sort) work well, Oatley touches on something that Sonia Wilson (2009) found in her survey of women in book clubs: that discussing literature in a group allows us to acknowledge that points we may not have found significant may have had significance to others–in other words, it helps us build empathy.

Overall, Such Stuff as Dreams is an interesting look through a psychological lens at the process of reading fiction and how it benefits our mind and emotions. Its discussions of group reading are interesting and provide links to other researchers and practitioners of group reading. I will end with a lovely quotation from Chapter 8, where Oatley recalls from his days as a medical student at Cambridge a moving experience of sitting in on F.R. Leavis’ literature seminars:

Leavis encouraged an atmosphere among his students of engaged excitement and moral seriousness I was a medical student at the time taking courses with a lot to remember but not much to think about. The atmosphere that Leavis created was closer to what I’d come to university for. The sense I acquired, already germinating in my schooldays, and then encouraged by my propinquity with [Leavis’] group, was that nothing else is quite as important as literature. It’s like being infected with a chronic disease which, although it comes and goes, I’ve not entirely been able to shake off. (183)

Jan. 23, 2013

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

Wilson’s project explores the benefits of group reading, specifically women’s book clubs. Through questionnaires and focus groups, she gathered information about participants’ perceptions of the social learning (defined as the learning that occurs in informal groups) and transformational learning (defined as “learning that causes adults to question and change how they think about themselves and/or the world” (2)) that occurs in their book clubs.

Wilson found that the women who participated in book clubs and group reading perceived several benefits from their experiences. Socially speaking, book clubs provided support and friendship for the women. In terms of learning and informal education, discussions often introduced the women to topics they previously did not know about or had not considered. The content or theme of the books themselves, as well as the ensuing group discussion, introduced the women to different perspectives and prompted participants to consider changes to their previously held beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the concept of empathy was a frequent theme in the participants’ comments. One woman, reflecting on how her book club participation has helped change her way of thinking, says, “Over the course of our discussions, I’ve learned to reserve judgment. My first reaction to a character’s choice or action is only one piece of the puzzle. I’ve learned that there are complex circumstances underlying most situations. With this realization, I have come to better understand others and empathize instead of judge” (24).

Wilson’s findings are consistent with those of other researchers looking at the educational and social benefits of group reading [e.g. Billington, J. (2011). ‘Reading for Life’: Prison reading groups in practice and theory. Critical Survey, 23(3), 67-85; 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]. Those who are interested in the use of book clubs and group reading to foster informal learning, social support, and development of empathy and understanding for the perspectives of others would find the detailed responses of the questionnaires and focus groups interesting, and perhaps influential, reading.

Dec. 3, 2012

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.

This article argues that narrative fiction acts as a simulation in which readers can experience an abstracted form of the real world. The value of this lies in the ability of narrative fiction to transport readers into situations that they would otherwise not be able to experience–for example, distant lands, unfamiliar cultures, historical events, or simply being in the mind of someone who is completely different from the reader’s own self. Through these vicarious experiences, readers may be able to 1) make sense of their current situation, 2) predict and make decisions about the future, 3) develop empathy for others.

The authors do acknowledge research that could be interpreted as contradicting their own findings (e.g. Narvaez, 2002, influenced by Nash, 1997). However, Narvaez’ work, about the problematic nature of storybooks as a method of moral education for young children, does point out that readers are active and construct meaning from texts, and that older children and adults are more successful in inferring themes from stories.

Although Mar and Oatley’s work may not be particularly surprising for anyone who has studied or taught literature, it can provide useful justification for the development of book clubs or reading groups, particularly among populations looking to develop empathy, become more self-aware, make better decisions–in other words, navigate human relationships more easily. The points the authors make about the ability of certain types of literature to evoke certain psychological responses are worth bearing in mind when, for example, attempting to recommend or choose literature for certain groups. For example, Mar and Oatley mention several studies that show literary narrative (in contrast to non-narrative expository text) prompts more vivid autobiographical memories in readers. This might be of particular interest to facilitators of reading groups aimed at seniors with dementia. Another point made in the article is that certain books or stories are not very useful in terms of their ability to “abstract and simulate the social world” (185); in fact, they may be derided by readers as unrealistic or “cheesy.” However, the article warns, although certain genres may spring to mind (romance, thriller or espionage), it is not the genre that is the problem, it is whether or not the author has managed to create realism in the social situations and characters’ psychological processes. In general, Mar and Oatley argue, readers who are exposed to a diversity of narrative fiction are not likely to be negatively influenced by what they read, and in fact “it is likely to increase pluralism, which is important in a democratic society” (186).

The authors conclude that “Although narrative is entertaining, its function is not one of mere entertainment…we propose that the idea of fiction as a kind of simulation that runs on minds will extend our understanding of selves in the social world. In doing so, it might bring members of the departments of psychology and literature closer together, which would be a very good thing” (188). I would heartily agree.

Nov. 1, 2012

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.

The investigation into literature-based interventions into improving mental health is still quite young. This report details a project with three major aims: 1) to discover how reading out loud in groups influences adults with dementia in different healthcare settings; 2) to examine the perceptions of healthcare staff about the effects of reading on adults with dementia; and 3) to examine what, if any, changes in dementia symptoms might occur with a group reading program such as Get Into Reading.

The Get Into Reading program has been detailed elsewhere in this annotated bibliography. In short, it is a program by the UK-based The Reader Organisation that uses group reading to have a positive influence on at-risk groups in a variety of settings. This report focuses on its effectiveness in working with adults with dementia. The research project described made use of both qualitative and quantitative methods–the report includes several case studies that describe individual participants’ background, level of dementia, and response to the reading intervention. It also includes statistical analyses of quantifiable data.

The conclusion reached by the report is that reading interventions such as Get Into Reading have a significant effect in reducing the severity of dementia symptoms and contributing to general improvements in wellbeing for participants. This is similar to findings in other reports about different populations such as adults with depression or adults in prison settings in terms of the benefits of the reading program. This report is a solid addition to the other evidence that group reading programs are inexpensive, beneficial additions to other mental health interventions with vulnerable populations.

Oct. 15, 2012

Robertson, Guy. (2012) It’s never too late to Tolstoy: Adventures of a seniors’ reading group. Feliciter (58)3, 110-112.

This article is an informal account of a seniors’ reading group in Vancouver, British Columbia. The author interviews participants, the facilitator, and local librarians to paint a picture of a lively, engaged reading club. The article provides some good insights into the reasons why seniors would find value in a reading group: social interaction, intellectual stimulation, physical activity (the group regularly walks to the local library). The comments from the facilitator would be helpful advice for others wishing to start a seniors’ reading group; she acknowledges that interpersonal dynamics can cause friction between group members, but provides some suggestions for dealing with difficult group members whose inhibitions have diminished. She also points out that some activities that might work well with younger, more agile readers (e.g. staging a Shakespeare play) may not work so well with older participants or those with mobility issues. Overall, despite the informal, light nature of the article, it is an interesting and informative snapshot of a successful elders’ reading group.

Oct. 12, 2012

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.

This article discusses the findings of a study intended to explore the experiences of participants in a “Get Into Reading” community reading group project. The researchers were interested in examining the effects of reading literature (as opposed to self-help type books) on the mental and physical health of participants.

The researchers assert that unlike self-help books, literature allows the participants to approach their problems in a more indirect manner, which can help them come to a solution. They cite the research by Oatley et al (1999) into the specific cognitive role that fiction plays in the way readers relate to texts. They also note the lack of research into the role of reading out loud for adults, despite the important role that reading out loud is acknowledged to have in the development of children’s literacy.

Some of the specific information that would be useful for someone hoping to set up similar programs is the importance of attending to the social function of the group: for example, as a place that mothers of young children can relax, knowing that their children are in childcare nearby; as a source of companionship for elderly or isolated people. The researchers also emphasize that care must be taken in how the project is set up–the voluntary nature of attendance, the lack of stated therapeutic goals, the ability of participants to “drop in” and read out loud or listen to others read, without having read the literature ahead of time–all of these elements seem to help the group’s potential for improving participants’ well-being and mental health.

Oct. 12, 2012

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.

This article describes a case study of two groups of people with depression who attend reading groups based on the UK “Get Into Reading” program. In this model, reading group members take turns reading literature (short stories or poetry) out loud and then discussing it. The researchers intended to examine the efficacy of the “Get Into Reading” program as a catalyst for change in mental health.

The authors describe some interesting observations about participants’ reactions to reading out loud. Several participants exhibited or reported feelings of relaxation or a calming of anxiety that were attributed to reading out loud or listening to others read out loud. The researchers also noted that participants who were reluctant to read narrative fiction out loud would often accept an invitation to read a poem. They also found that narrative texts and poetry produced different reactions in participants: narrative tended to produce reflection and relaxation, and poetry was more likely to encourage participation and engagement with others in the group. Although the environment in which the groups met initially seemed to influence the level of participation, in the end it was the “collective action of the literature, facilitator, and group” which had the most effect on the participants (5).

The article acknowledges that the study was limited by a small sample size, participant attrition, and lack of controls. However, the observations made about the importance of choice of literature and facilitator as more important, ultimately, than physical setting would be valuable to keep in mind for anyone hoping to start up a reading group of this type. The comments about different responses to narrative texts and poetry would also be useful when considering the needs of the participants in the choice of literature.

Sept. 19, 2012

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.

This article outlines a project called Community Book Club originally designed to integrate professional development for teachers with family literacy for parents of preschoolers. The project was a response to two identified community needs: the need to get parents involved in their children’s education and reduce the disconnect between home and school literacy practices, and the need to increase reading for both parents and teachers. The researchers found that the book club worked well to improve reading in both groups and to increase literacy practices at home.

Some of the most important findings were that family literacy needed a broader definition of “family” to include extended family members, not just parents. They also discovered that although the project’s initial purpose was to involve participants in “academic reading practices” (McGinley, Conley, and White, 2000), participants tended toward “lived experience” reading as described by Rosenblatt (1995). This is consistent with other research that shows the immersive quality of narrative fiction and its ability to draw readers into the world of the literary work so they feel like they are experiencing the events along with the characters.

Additionally, the researchers found that the most effective discussions employed cultural practices common to the group–the African American oral tradition of “call and response.” This discourse pattern stimulated more discussion and participation among the book club members, all of whom were African American, including the group facilitators.

This article provides some insight into best practices around community book clubs and also family literacy programs in terms of broader definitions of literacy, recognizing a variety of valid purposes for reading groups, and the value of taking into account various culturally-influenced patterns of discourse among reading group participants.

Sept. 14, 2012

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

This article details the author’s facilitation of two after-school book clubs for adolescent girls in an inner-city American high school. Polleck found that the experiences of the participants were in line with previous research on the transformative benefits of book clubs and reading groups. Some of the benefits included an increase in the ability to understand and analyze literature (increase in literacy and critical thinking), an opportunity for the girls to work through difficult issues in their own lives (e.g. body image, relationships with family and romantic interests) and increased bonding and friendships with the other girls in the group (creation of a support network).

The author places the book group’s experiences within the framework of reader response theory and illustrates how the various stages in the book club discussions correspond with Wilhelm’s (1997) three dimensions of reader response: evocative, reflective, and connective.

One particularly useful aspect of the article is the author’s commentary on her own role as facilitator. She emphasizes the importance of connecting with participants and getting to know them on a personal level, but recognizes that as facilitator, she needed to step back from the discussion as much as possible (while still stepping in occasionally to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard). This would be important to note when implementing a structured, facilitator-led book club within a social program.

One drawback of this article is that much of the research cited on book groups and reader response theory is between ten and twenty years old; it would be helpful to see more recent citations. However, this may be an indication of the relative scarcity of such research at the time of writing.

Sept. 11, 2012

Billington, J. (2011). ‘Reading for Life’: Prison reading groups in practice and theory. Critical Survey, 23(3), 67-85.

This article examines the effects of shared reading programs in UK prisons. It focuses on one particular approach, “Get Into Reading” or GIR, developed by The Reader Organization. Billington connects specific comments from participants and facilitators about the benefits of group reading to current mental health/cognitive research about such benefits. The author concludes that group reading of literature (as opposed to self-help books) is beneficial because it can

  • promote serious, meaningful discussion of issues relevant to participants’ lives
  • allow them to experience others’ points of view
  • help form strong bonds between participants, and
  • develop their self-confidence.

Billington also points out that group reading out loud is beneficial because even lower-literacy members can participate fully and increase their literacy level over time.

The article’s interdisciplinary nature (humanities, cognitive science, social work, mental health) bolsters the idea that book clubs and reading groups are not merely nice-to-have “extras” but rather powerful tools that can radically change the lives of at-risk and marginalized populations.

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