At a weekly book club, Elizabeth Day has found that even in an age of social networking, the direct, oral tradition can still reach out to a new audience
"The last time someone told Thomas Yeomans a story, he was a child. Last week he wandered into a storytelling session for adults without quite knowing what lay in store. "For me, reading has become more formal over the years; it's something I do on my own," explained Yeomans, a 26-year-old artist. "So I swept into this at the last minute, not knowing what to expect."
Yeomans happened to find himself in one of the weekly storytelling sessions that I have been running over the past month in an art gallery in central London. When I developed the idea with gallerist Simon Oldfield, the premise was simple: we both felt that the tradition of reading aloud and sharing stories with each other was something that had been lost in modern times. In an era of social networking and electronic gadgetry, when friendships are conducted via computer screen and culture is increasingly savoured in isolation through a pair of noise-reducing headphones, we have neglected the pleasures of direct experience.
Many of us used to be told stories as children. But as we grow older, we seem to lose the knack. Yet there is undoubtedly an appetite for it: revenue from downloaded audiobooks has risen by 32.7% since last year, while The Reader Organisation, a charity that aims to engage people through the shared reading of great literature, now has 350 weekly shared reading groups across the country.
"What happens with shared reading is that people experience a very intense thing together, but everybody has their own personal, private, inner response to it," says Jane Davis, founder of The Reader Organisation. "A lot of people don't understand how poor literacy is in our country. For many, reading aloud gives you access to things you would simply never read otherwise."
Like Davis, it struck me that, while there had been a welcome resurgence of book groups and literary festivals over the past decade, there was little chance for adults to engage in group reading without some sort of self-improving literary discussion at the end of it, or a nagging sense that one should really be buying the author's newest work as part of an unspoken commercial transaction. Which is how I came to be reading Anne Enright's short story, Here's To Love, in the week before Christmas when Yeomans wandered through the door. "What I liked about it was that this was an informal setting and a gentle, welcoming environment where my defences were down," Yeomans said after the session. "It really pulled at my heart strings. I felt like a defenceless child again."
Helen Ervin, a 38-year-old marketing executive from New York, agreed: "There's an intimacy that happens when you get a whole bunch of people together… There was a moment in today's story where I thought I might cry. There's an emotion brought to the surface when you're reading aloud because it's being performed."
Another attendee said he had come because "the idea of reading is hard work to me. I'm dyslexic, so I prefer to listen to radio plays and things like that. I was completely sucked in today. It was really engaging."
For Doris Julian, 70, the experience "took me right back to being a child and being read to in the library. I like to listen to le Carré audiobooks and things like that, but there's nothing better than the real version. It's very descriptive and I love it. I can't think of a nicer way to spend an afternoon."
By this time I'd been running the storytelling sessions for a month and had been bowled over by the response. More and more people came in each week to listen to short stories by authors as diverse as Dorothy Whipple and Jon McGregor in a room hung with striking works of contemporary art. Local businesses were keen to get involved: Majestic gave us free wine to serve and a rug company, Bazaar Velvet, loaned us a beautiful Anatolian carpet for everyone to sit on, engendering a real community feel and invoking the true childhood spirit of Jackanory.
A handful of regulars came to every session. It seemed to tap into something – a kind of long-forgotten tradition that we still felt in our bones. Reading aloud has a noble history. Before the invention of the movable-type printing press in the 1430s, oral storytelling was a means of cementing community bonds and passing folk narratives on to the next generation. In medieval times, storytellers were honoured members of royal courts. From 1500 storytelling continued to be popular in an era of widespread illiteracy, when books were still too expensive for the common man.
"Often a neighbour would have a Bible and would read aloud from it," says Jennifer Richards, a professor of early modern literature and culture at Newcastle University. "Or there would be rhetorical training for boys at grammar school, [but] the appeal of reading aloud is not about education; it's about being social, part of a community."
In the 18th and 19th centuries, reading aloud continued to be a form of entertainment. "People didn't have recorded music or films or television, so books had to be everything; they needed to be dramatic, entertaining, comic and sentimental," explains Dr Abigail Williams, a lecturer in English at Oxford University. "One of the things about reading aloud is that you have to do it in small bits. You can't just do it for hours on end, so that brings out qualities in the text you might otherwise miss. People become the characters in a way they don't if you are reading flatly for yourself. You get more of the comedy and the dialogue works differently because it becomes the spoken voice, rather than a transcription of the spoken voice."
But none of this can entirely convey the intensity and intimacy of the experience. I was surprised by how many people who came to the storytelling sessions were visibly moved by the experience – I would glance up from the text and see someone's eyes gleaming, on the brink of tears. Others would look away, lost in their own private universe. One man came up to me afterwards and admitted that he thought a character in one of the stories was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition that he too had been diagnosed with.
It is a sensation familiar to Davis, who runs reading groups for a cross-section of society – from young doctors without the time to read, to prisoners or groups of pensioners in economically deprived areas. "These little private bombs go off in your head, something strikes a chord [because] with the shared reading experience you are not an observer or discusser; you're going through the experience with everyone else," she says.
"There are a lot of people out there whose connection to the world is through TV and things like I'm A Celebrity. Lots of people don't have a chance to have a serious, intellectual, meaningful experience, and that's what humans are for. We need that… A book provides a wonderful anonymity for personal feelings and responses."
The Reader Organisation has case studies on its website that pay testament to the power of shared reading. A woman in her 60s from Birkenhead is quoted as saying: "For many years I have had a lot of pain in my body, but when I am in the group the reading and sharing of stories helps me to focus my mind away from the physical pain and forget about it for a couple of hours... It kind of lifts you out of the pain."
A survey by the same charity of 214 people who had attended storytelling groups found that 96% enjoyed meeting people they wouldn't normally meet, while 80% left feeling "more positive" about life.
I can't speak for all those who came to our sessions, but I certainly left feeling more positive about lots of things – about the power of literature to engage, the special kind of intimacy gained from a communal experience and the ability to communicate with so many different people without any kind of ulterior motive.
We weren't trying to sell anything. We weren't pretending to improve anyone's mind. All we wanted to do was to share a story. And in the end, it was not just about reading out loud, but also about reading ourselves."