Shared Reading – Literature for All

Where do people talk about great literature—especially those who don’t read much? At shared reading events. The idea that originated in the UK has since gained many fans in Germany too.

Regina Mennig | July 2018
People read in a group
Markus Kirchgessner

“In the beginning you wonder what you are supposed to say. I may have an idea, but should I really say it out loud?”

Ten strangers who have come from different directions, from different lives, gather on this mild summer evening. There is an elderly gentleman with neatly parted gray hair in a short-sleeved dress shirt. Across from him sits a young woman wearing a black t-shirt and golden hoop earrings. Another participant is a teenage boy with a baseball cap on and a gym bag slung over the back of his chair. People exchange guarded looks. Who might the others be? The group falls silent, and the only sound is the soft breeze in the leaves of the trees. The facilitator of the reading group hands out copies of a short story and starts reading it aloud in a calm voice.

“Who we are, where we work - these things don’t matter here”

Her words paint an archaic scene: a woman at the hearth preparing breakfast and workers devouring their food. At first glance, the story does not seem to have much to do with the small reading group gathered on lawn chairs in a Stuttgart park. But the short, plain text has an astonishing effect: In next to no time, the group is engaging in a lively discussion about pleasure, excess, and nothing less than what truly matters in life. When the 90-minute shared reading session draws to a close, participants have talked to each other about their feelings and personal experiences.

“In the beginning you wonder what you are supposed to say. I may have an idea, but should I really say it out loud?” says Benedikt, the student with the cap, who, towards the end, seemed to bubble with thoughts and associations. 

“We took an absolutely judgment-free approach to interacting with each other. That’s something our society often lacks,” comments Merve Gül, the young woman with the hoop earrings, a junior lawyer. “It was interesting to start out not knowing anything about the different people in the group. Who we are, where we work—these things don’t matter here.”

“I assume it’s usually only literature students who talk about literature. This concept, with entirely different people gathering to do so, is new,” says retired teacher Wolfgang Strobel, the gray-haired elderly gentleman.

Markus Kirchgessner

Kerstin Graumann (2nd from the right) decided to set up "Shared Reading" groups in her hometown Bremen. Next to her is Carsten Sommerfeldt, who brought Shared Reading to Germany.

Shared reading – Amazing experiences from the UK

Shared reading groups are still a novelty in Germany. The basic principle behind the idea is simple: to leave everyday life behind for a while and have a conversation with others based on a piece of literature. It is on purpose that sessions do not follow a fixed format, and they are meant to also attract people who have little exposure to literature and reading. “In fact, I am most interested in participants who don’t normally read,” says biologist Kerstin Graumann, a petite woman from Bremen.

When Kerstin heard about the shared reading trend in the UK a few years back, she immediately inquired how she could become a reading group facilitator. She completed her three-day training in Liverpool. In the workshop, she learned how to involve the group and drive the discussion. She also realized the importance of shared reading in British society: Some 400 reading groups already exist in the country. They meet in community centers, companies, hospitals, and prisons. One story she heard was of a 17-year-old girl sent to a shared reading session by her social worker. The girl sat down, arms crossed, announcing: “You can’t force me to do anything!” But then she returned every week.

As a reading group facilitator in Germany, Kerstin has had equally surprising experiences: “In one group, we had a few dementia patients. They just sat there, seemingly uninvolved for a long time. But eventually, they began to relate their life to literature. One woman used to work at sea, and she saw parallels to this lifestyle in the text.” Kerstin is planning to set up permanent shared reading groups in her hometown of Bremen.

Literature is never “too heavy,” but often too lowbrow

Permanent groups have already been established in Berlin, Frankfurt, and Heidelberg. The driving force behind these groups is Carsten Sommerfeldt, who founded the German shared reading spinoff together with a team of like-minded people. It all began with a sabbatical: A seasoned publishing house manager, Carsten needed a change. “I was part of the literary scene for 20 years, and this industry has a somewhat hermetic feel to it at times,” he says in retrospect. His idea was to find a more hands-on, participative approach to literature. Carsten was inspired by a book he read on “reading as medicine,” and when he learned about the shared reading movement in the UK, he knew this was it.

Initially, he tried out shared reading with friends and neighbors in different Berlin backyards. Since 2015, Carsten has worked on establishing a shared reading network in German-speaking countries. To date, 2,500 people in Germany have experienced shared reading, and there are a good 40 trained facilitators. In 2016, Carsten and his team presented the shared reading concept at the Leipzig Book Fair, and he continues to promote the idea. When asked for the right reading material for these sessions, the literature expert states that literature is never “too heavy,” but often too lowbrow. “Mysteries and popular fiction, for instance, don’t leave enough room for fantasy and interpretation. It is literary fiction that constantly surprises people.”

Reading in the Park

This year’s "Reading in the Park" event of the Robert Bosch Stiftung focused on new formats of literature facilitation. The guest of honor was poet, novelist, and Adelbert von Chamisso Award winner José F. A. Oliver. Beyond his own oeuvre, he is deeply involved in issues of cultural participation. He is also the founder of an international literature festival, the Hausacher LeseLenz. At the event, he discussed his writing, social commitment, and the future and importance of literature and reading with fellow author and head of the Ludwigshafen Cultural Office, Fabian Burstein.