‘How does it work then?’ I was asked the other day. ‘Do you all read at the same time, aloud?’
It was a timely question. I’m hoping to start a guided-reading-group in a new area in September, and I’ve been wondering not just where to advertise, but how to do it. Publicity not being my strong-suit, my usual system has been to describe the book that the course is based on, and hope to tempt or intrigue people who either already love the book, or have thought they might like to read it one day. That blurb goes out in the WEA brochures, on it’s web-site, and here on my blog. More locally, WEA branch volunteers and I put up posters.
I’m blushing here. This demonstrates an abysmal failing in creativity and imagination. I’ve been drifting along, putting in minimal time and thought to what is one of the keys to a successful course, recruitment.
In the past I concentrated on where to place publicity. That’s been useful. I’ve learned the value of visibility, and these days I’ve usually got cards, posters, fliers and brochures in pockets and bags, ready to hand around. But let’s be brutally truthful, I had become complacent, even thinking of myself as efficient.
So, as I was explaining the format to my questioner, ‘The reading all happens at home, between classes,’ I was also thinking about how effective my publicity really was.
‘So then what do you do?’ he said, hitting the vital nail on the head.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘we discuss what we’ve read, and I bring along some questions that I think might add to the discussion, and some extra information that might affect the way we think about the writing, usually as a short presentation. Then we compare our ideas about that. I might give some background about the author, or consider how the book was written, or what was happening at the time, and how we think the book fits in with modern ideas and other stories.’ I paused.
How do you describe something that is meant to flex around the divergent interests of each group?
I’ve been guiding reading-groups for ten years now. The class I started with was based on an anthology of short stories. I’ve delivered it to several groups since then. It provides a lovely cross-section of writers and styles, and of story-writing principles and practices.
I can’t predict what will delight, interest, entertain, confuse, shock or repel a reader. Each group takes each discussion in a new direction. Some of the stories are difficult reads that raise questions about the functions of writing and reading.
Each reader brings a new slant to my understanding of what a story is saying and how it works. Did they like it? Why? If not, why not? Can I persuade them to read it differently, show them something intriguing about it?
Together we explore the how and why of each text. For readers, it adds a new dimension to the way they think about books and writers. For writers, it provides a better understanding of the endless flexibility of fiction.
Do we risk losing sight of the story when we start investigating it? Shouldn’t reading be about losing yourself? Shouldn’t it be just about the words on the page?
I would answer yes, in varying degrees, to all three questions. Because, can’t reading sometimes also be about the spaces between the words, too? And if they’re there, isn’t it good to be able to explore their possibilities in company of some other interested and curious readers?