On Reading Groups

Prison Reading Groups

On Reading Groups

There have been reading groups–opportunities for shared reading—forever, well, at least since Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s time. The Canterbury Tales and the Decameron both tell a multitude of stories with new stories emerging from reactions to them– characters squabble, boast, agree, disagree, compete, succumb. It’s not so different to life in the two reading groups that I belong to.


Sharing a chequered school career, and feeling that we’d missed out, an old friend and I agreed that there were shelves, libraries of books we should have read, had wanted to read, had bluffed about reading, even intended to read so why not start a group to fill those gaps.  We called it the Unashamedly Classic Book Club (UCBC). Our mission is not to read the latest best seller or Booker book but specifically to fill gaps, to read the books we’d heard of, that other people—the well-read—had read, to read the classics. It’s a bit like the game of Humiliation in David Lodge’s Changing Places where players get together in a group and confess the canonical works that they have failed to read, except in UCBC non-humiliation is guaranteed. Our books must have stood some time test, usually someone else has recommended it, someone has heard of it, it’s on some list, the 100 best books, the 1000 you have to read before you die…sometimes our discussion asks if this book really was up to an evening’s conversation, is it really a classic, does it belong in UCBC…. Some books don’t.  So far we’ve read more than 80 acceptably great books of European, American and World Literature and most have been coconuts. All sustained good conversation…even if sometimes the best discussion was provoked by a book we all hated. We meet once a month and have a long summer recess during which we read one volume of A la recherche du Temps Perdu. It’s an act of faith: UCBC will continue for at least 5 more years…. We come with questions, thoughts, stickers, bookmarks, folded down pages, scribbled notes, marginalia, quotes we’re eager to share. The greatest discussions often start with everyone disagreeing. The evenings often end with our thinking differently about the book.

We are all sorts—there are men, there are young people, we are of any and all professions. The private and active act of reading  in one’s little triangular tent of a book, the private space, where the imagination is free and that lovely act of concentration, of losing and finding oneself in a book—finds new life in the group when we make a new story forged in the flying sparks of sharing the reading with a trusted group.


The second group I belong is at a men’s prison. I have noticed that people ask of UCBC what are ‘you’ reading and of the Prison Reading Group what are ‘they’ reading. The prison group is made up of all sorts, all ages, backgrounds, professions, there are men and women—the volunteers and prison staff join in—there is no ‘they’. The Prison Reading Groups (PRG) criteria for choosing the books is simply that the prisoners choose it themselves—for these groups take place somewhere where there is little other opportunity for choice. Again the private act of reading—in a cell—culminates in shared discussion most often in the prison library—again, you never know where the story is going to take you or how it will change you in the course of the group discussion. Typically for a prison setting, there is a range of literacy levels. Some may come to the group unable to read at all. Even so, the discussions invigorate, provoke thought, feed empathy and imagination and have inspired non-reading members to start to read. You become part of a reading community. The group is kindly, courteous, discursive, stimulating. The word that always springs to mind about our discussions is that they are unguarded. UCBC’s next book is Raymond Radiguet’s The Devil in the Flesh. And PRG’s is S.E.Hinton’s The Outsiders. I can’t wait.

By Victoria Gray, Executive Director, Give A Book

Give A Book is a UK registered charity. They facilitate the gift of books to selected charities and other organisations, such as schools and prisons.

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