Shared Reading is a social movement that brings people together to read out loud and discuss great stories and poems. This simple act has changed people’s lives — I should know, it changed mine.

I remember reading the poem Digging by Seamus Heaney in a reading group at a time when I was struggling with the idea of masculinity and it affected me deeply.

My male role models could all build things with their hands, they sweated and got dirty and spent their evenings in silence. My places of work at that time were care homes and supported housing facilities. I did not come home dirty. I struggled to understand the intricacies of a tape measure; I felt the cold shadow of shame over me when I didn’t know what a spirit level looked like.

It was a constant issue for me growing up. I was not interested in cars or machines – I liked reading and walking in fields – I felt in most interactions that I was having to deny a part of who I was, so I could fit in and exist under the radar. This left me feeling lonely and angry, which led me down some dark paths and kept me from reaching out to people who cared. I cultivated my separateness and internalised my anger until one day I went to a shared reading session (put on by the Reader Organisation in the UK).

At first, I was anxious. “Was I expected to read?” As far as I was concerned I didn’t really have anything interesting to say, “what if I don’t understand, I will look stupid!” I thought about leaving before we got started, but by that time I had been given a cup of tea and a biscuit!

The facilitator sat down and requested that we “Just relax. There is no pressure on you to read, you do not have to contribute to the discussion if you don’t want to, there is nothing to understand or work out, you may close your eyes if you want to, or follow the reading along” (she then gave us a copy of the text). This was an immediate relief. I could just sit there, no one looking at me, no one expecting anything of me!

She started to read, slowly, as if examining every word. The reading itself was soothing, almost meditative. We read a story, Powder by Tobias Wolf about an absent father trying to win his son’s love.

There were countless moments in the story that resonated in my own life. There was also great wisdom in what the other people in the group were saying. We were sharing things with each other without needing to have long ‘life-story’ conversations, instead these little snippets of our thoughts or life experience illuminated our understanding of the story and of each other. I discovered that I did have interesting things to say, that I could contribute to the discussion and that people actually wanted to listen.

Then we read the poem Digging. At first I did not understand any of it. It was just a jumble of words and my mind’s response was totally blank. The facilitator said “don’t worry about the meaning, just concentrate on listening to the words, like music.” Then she read it through again. This time I noticed certain words and phrases.

“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it”.

I still think of these last lines. They say to me that it is ok to be different. That the world can — indeed needs — to contain many different types of people and many different types of men. So even though “I’ve no spade” or in my instance “I’ve no tape measure to follow men like them” I am just as worthy of my place in the world.

That realisation was a lifeline for me and the act of shared reading made that possible.

Not every session is as close to my own personal life, but every session is interesting and different and I take something from each one, whether it is from a story, poem or something someone has said in the discussion.

With social isolation one of society’s most pervasive (and expensive) challenges, anxiety and depression rising to epidemic proportions, social and educational disparity increasing seemingly without end, it seems to me that we need more than ever what stories and poetry can bring to our lives.

We need the space to truly see each other, wherever we find ourselves in life. This is what creates healing and this is the reason that our dedicated team is passionate about establishing Shared Reading groups across NSW.

Christopher Smith is the founder of Shared Reading NSW.
Shared Reading NSW run shared reading groups and train facilitators to establish shared reading groups for personal wellbeing and community development
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Posted by Christopher Smith, Writer, Executive Director at Shared Reading NSW. Image by Pexels