As part of my ongoing efforts to build an impact case study for the next REF, and to put together another funding application, I’ve been doing some research on local reading groups and book clubs, and perhaps naively have been surprised at the diversity of groups on offer in our locality. To give you a flavour, there are groups for readers who have dementia (and their carers), reading groups for the blind and for autistic teenagers. I’m hoping to be able to connect with some of these groups and see if they use digital platforms at all in their reading or discussions. But it’s also got me thinking about how reading digitally may offer a lifeline for people with a disability or health issue that makes reading print books difficult, or that prevents them from being able to share their reading with others.
My partner’s mother has macular degeneration, and is now almost completely reliant on her Ipad and Kindle for reading. A lifelong reader, she reacted in horror when we first showed her the Kindles we’d bought some four or five years ago, but now she is hooked and tells me her local WI is awash with Ipad devotees who share their trials and tribulations with the device. Meanwhile, someone I follow on Twitter recently posted about how she was able to read a novel for the first time in a while using an ereader. I’ve never met her, but she suffers from some kind of condition that affects her manual dexterity and ability to physically cope with a hefty tome. In both these cases, audiobooks may have provided a solution, though I’ve never quite grasped the concept of listening to book myself. But ereading offers another option for lifelong avid readers to extend their reading lives and find ways around the issues that affect their ability to continue with an activity they love.
As well as offering a lifeline for people with physical issues of some kind, I’m also interested in how the affordances of the digital may be of benefit to readers in terms of psychological and emotional wellbeing. I’ve written here before about the fact that one of the main motivations for our original study was that we wanted to explore why people go online to discuss their reading, as opposed to joining a local group. We were thinking mainly of our own experiences both as sulky students silently fulminating at the back of the class, and as teachers of literature trying to get class members to open up and talk. In these cases, it may just be introversion, shyness or sheer contrariness that holds people back from participating in discussion. But of course for people with social anxieties or mental health issues, online groups may be a godsend. I haven’t yet come across communities of readers online who are organised according to a condition or disability (I would be very interested to hear if they exist). But one of the attractions of online communities is that you can remain anonymous and to some extent choose how you want to be defined.
On my recent travels, I discovered CRILS (Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society) based at the University of Liverpool who work in partnership with The Reader Organisation and who have been doing some fascinating work on the relationship between reading and wellbeing. Although one of their aims is to ‘set the world agenda in new technologies and the future of meaning’, I haven’t yet found much research specifically on the digital sphere. Of course for many people the terms ‘digital’ and ‘wellbeing’ are antithetical, but work by network member Sue Thomas amongst others has set out to challenge this notion, and to show that online and virtual worlds can help foster and develop a sense of wellbeing. Ironically, Sue is currently in hospital recovering from a knee op. However, she continues to communicate with the outside world via the wonders of modern technology, and I’m sure that the reading she has access to via her smartphone or tablet is much richer than that offered by the hospital library trolley. All the best Sue for a speedy recovery!!