“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are”

Mason Cooley

Just before lockdown 2, we started a book group with the garden volunteers. We thought it would be a nice way to stay connected at a time when getting to the garden was harder, colder and new rotas and restrictions meant we wouldn’t all necessarily see each other during the week. One of our volunteers Christine is also a book group expert, having been involved in several different book groups over the years. We thought she could share some of her wisdom and insight with us, especially as some of the other volunteers have never been part of a book group before and have less confidence about reading and discussing books in general.  

I love the above quote, because books do have the power to take us to new worlds, which is especially important when living in the UK is not so easy. In England at the moment, we have to stay where we are- unable to travel (except for work) or visit family, friends or pursue any of our normal hobbies or socialise (except online). A lot of us don’t have gardens to roam around. The four walls of our homes can feel very close and it is easy to feel hemmed in and alone.

William Nicholson, the screenwriter, said 'we read to know we are not alone', and books can be an important companion and friend in times of loneliness. Being able to lose oneself in a book is also a way of getting some of our freedom to roam back. Our imaginations can take us to all sorts of far off places. So far in our book group we have read Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and next on our list is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. This means we have been to Cornwall, Monte Carlo, New York and the Seonee jungle in India without having left our seats.

Aside from helping us feel less lonely, and allowing us to travel the world, reading a good book has a number of other amazing benefits. According to MHFA (Mental Health First Aid), research by Dr David Lewis showed that reading a book as little as six minutes a day can reduce stress levels by 60%. Books can also help you live longer too- Yale University School of Public Health found that book readers experienced a 20% reduction in the risk of mortality over a 12 year period compared to non-readers. And if that wasn’t enough, reading also increases your sense of empathy and emotional intelligence, your vocabulary, verbal skills and general knowledge, reduces depression and prevents memory loss. Reading is basically a miracle cure!   

And we are beginning to feel these benefits in the group. At the moment we are meeting once a month online, via zoom. It would be nicer to meet in person, but it is still wonderful to talk through the book worlds we have inhabited and what we discovered about the characters, environment and ourselves through reading. We have also found that this is true:

‘No two persons ever read the same book’

Edward Wilson

And this is unsurprising really. We are all unique members of the book group and all have our own valuable experiences, reactions and thoughts to contribute to the discussion. And this creates community- because when we discuss characters and their traits, foibles, motivations and loves, we find we are learning a little bit more about each other, understanding one another on a deeper level.  This is always good, though perhaps especially during this strange time.

Catherine, one of the garden book group members said:

‘The book group is a great way to keep us connected during Covid and the first two book meetings have been fun!...It’s definitely something to look forward to every month and it is also encouraging us to read more..’

Paul, another member said:

'The book group has really encouraged me as a not too avid reader to give reading another chance. The idea of discussing it later on motivates me to keep at it. I find it inspiring that other people can interpret meaning where I would have previously seen none, and this extra dimension makes the reading experience more interesting..' 

To be part of a book group, you don't have to have studied English literature, or have read all the classics. You can be any age. You just have to be up for reading one page after another. You have your own individual and unique perspective and experience to bring to the group, and that's valuable. I recommend joining one! There are a few based in Newcastle and the surrounding areas listed here: https://www.meetup.com/topics/bookclub/gb/41/newcastle_upon_tyne/. Or why not start a new one with family or friends? You could run one based around sci-fi, food, fantasy, feminism, graphic novels or young adult fiction. Or books with titles taken from famous songs. If you are inspired to set up a book group after reading this, do let us know: [email protected]. We'd love to hear about it. 

*Banner image by the amazing illustrator David Wiesner: http://www.davidwiesner.com/