Dr. Josie Billington explores reading’s impact on health (Q&A)
By Jill Grunenwald, Staff Writer | June 2018
Perspectives on Reading recently spoke with Dr. Josie Billington, a professor at the University of Liverpool who specializes in Victorian literature. She also serves as the deputy director of the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society, an organization that explores the role literature and reading plays on mental and physical health. Dr. Billington has published extensively on the positive impact literary reading has on well-being and mental health and is currently engaged in research projects that examine reading’s relationship to chronic pain.
PoR: Can you start by giving us an introduction to the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society?
Dr. Josie Billington: We’re pretty unique in that we are literature specialists coming out of an English literature department crossing over to a life and health sciences department to work with medical practitioners, psychologists and medical academics to consider the value of reading in the world. We do a lot of work on reading and health, particularly on mental health; dementia, depression and self harm and chronic pain in particular. We are interested in thinking about the roles serious literature and serious literary reading have in the world today. And literature across the ages, from the Middle Ages onward.
PoR: You also work closely with the charity The Reader, which brings people together to share a love of great literature.
Dr. Josie Billington: The Reader is a national charity in the U.K., and they have grown from one reading group in the beginning to now 400-500 reading groups in the U.K. and Europe. Their main mission is to make reading matter. Anywhere and everywhere, really. They do this through a shared reading model where groups of people – between 2-12 people – come together to read aloud together. Poetry, plays, short stories, novels. And they can read one novel over 12 months if it’s a (Charles) Dickens novel. The important thing about this is that people who are not normally readers and wouldn’t consider themselves to be readers, including people who may have literacy difficulties or impairments of other kinds, are able to listen to the piece being read and participate in meaningful ways.
PoR: Adults are familiar with the concept of reading aloud to children, but, as you mentioned, this is something that people of all ages can benefit from, including dementia patients. From what I read, that program needed to be changed to meet their needs.
Dr. Josie Billington: That’s right. Anything that demanded concentration was too long, but what seemed to happen was a few lines of poetry could hold the concentration of the readers in those groups better than a more leisurely narrative, sequential style.
“Daffodils” by (William) Wordsworth is a poem that was loved by that population, but in one study, they read that same poem each day for two weeks and people often didn’t remember that they had read it the day before. What was beautiful about it was that this poem was familiar to them, but every time they read it they had fresh responses to it. So it was doing two things: connecting them to the rest of their lives and stimulating a new kind of mental and emotional response as well.
PoR: That’s so interesting, how they still had a visceral reaction because they didn’t recognize having read it before.
Dr. Josie Billington: I know! There was this one wonderful moment in one of our studies: one of the methods we have is to video record the reading groups and then we take significant moments back to the participants. We sort of return them to the moment of reading and then ask them to speak to us about what was happening. One of the most absolute amazing moments was where this woman read aloud a Wordsworth sonnet – “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” – read it aloud absolutely beautifully and with delight and with applauses afterwards, and she just kind of came alive from being quite inert.
When she was shown this moment on a video recording, she had no idea who she was. It’s difficult to know what to think about that, because on one hand, you’d want her to be able to know that that experience was her own. On the other hand, for the moment that she had the experience, her quality of life was improved massively. One of the reasons people are interested in shared reading is that in care homes or chronic pain clinics or any kind of mental health facility, there is so little provision for people beyond cognitive behavioral therapy. This is just a sort of humane intervention. It’s very cheap but it also has results. People feel more connected with themselves and with one another.
PoR: Your studies also show that shared reading groups have benefits on mental health, depression in particular. This was especially true when literature was approached simply for literature’s sake and not as part of a remedy program.
Dr. Josie Billington: Absolutely. People began by thinking it had to speak to their condition in some way, so they were expecting really quite depressing literature or more joyful literature to bring them out of it. We began to see improvements in their mood when they forgot they were part of a depression study or reading group of depression, and just saw themselves as members of a reading group and accepted that we were bringing literature in that was based on interests that they’d expressed. People with lives, not just people with depression. I think that is one key finding. Yes, literature has therapeutic effects but not if you introduce it as a therapeutic intervention. You begin with a book, not with a health agenda, and it seems to work.
One of the psychiatrists says quite eloquently that when he’s reading with patients, the book becomes the expert, not him. And it’s a kind of neutrality with the book, insofar as the book doesn’t know who you are. The book doesn’t know if you’re well or ill. It’s not demanding that you respond to it in the way a therapist might. On the one hand, that level is neutral, it’s not making you do anything you don’t want to. It’s not trying to make you better, it doesn’t care. But on another level, especially when a poem or a book is read aloud in a room, it enables vocal human presence. It’s another person talking about human trouble. It’s another human individual, another person within the human race.
Very often people will say things instinctively like “this is me” or “I didn’t realize other people felt this way” and they say they feel less alone as a result of that. What poets tend to do is use their difficult experience and write about it and that gives people who are experiencing something difficult not only a connection with the experience but a language for it. I think that’s often the thing that people in distress are missing, a language for describing what’s happening to them.
PoR: Have you found that people who previously would not have considered themselves a reader have become readers on their own after going through this program?
Dr. Josie Billington: That’s one of the studies we would really like to do, the cause and effect of this. One of the things we do know for sure, for instance, came out of our study in a women’s prison. The people who invited us into the prison said that a lot of these women really shouldn’t be here but they’ve fallen through the net somewhere; they’re victims themselves. A lot of them were missing their children, there were all kinds of family issues for them. So they would come to the reading group and then they would often take the poem to the cell and they’d put it on the wall and then they’d begin to read the book that was being read in the reading group with their families on the outside. It was a kind of connection to the outside. I don’t know how long that reading habit lasted, but it certainly lasted beyond the reading group. It is quite common for people to take the reading material away when they’ve enjoyed it and some people tell us, “I read it again when I get home and it takes me back to that place.”
PoR: I love the idea that for someone who doesn’t enjoy reading or has literacy difficulties and can’t read, they can come to these groups and still participate without “outing” themselves as having these challenges.
Dr. Josie Billington: The inclusiveness of this, I think I sometimes forget it. And it mustn’t be underestimated. It’s a great model for that.
PoR: One point I kept coming across in your writing is that you give priority to the classics and doing so is “not elitism but its opposite; it makes good books and their power for good, available to everyone.” Can you expand on that a bit more, because I do think some people have a slight aversion to what would be considered the English literature canon because they do find it elitist or inaccessible.
Dr. Josie Billington: I think there are a number of things here. The range of reading that The Reader offers is much more high-brow to middle-brow. There’s a whole range of content there that has the potential to become a classic, even if it’s not yet seen as a classic. I think the barometer here is about seriousness and truth-telling. I don’t think it’s elitism because I think if we didn’t take this literature out into the world then it would get stuck in the universities, and it feels to me that this is a massive untapped resource within in the world.
The worst people who should be dealing with this resource are the people like me: academics who have forgotten how to read intuitively and instinctively. We read works in a very rational way, works that have become classics, but who were they written by? They’re written, very often, by vulnerable human beings who have dedicated themselves, often very painfully, to their craft. They might be thought of as great poets now, but they have struggled to find a language for human distress. It seems to me that’s the kind of criteria I’m using here. Is this work, from whatever age it comes from, actually being true to the human experience? It sounds very trite, I know. In the end it doesn’t matter whether it’s being canonized or not. There are all sorts of bits of literature that I’m sure are used in shared reading that aren’t necessarily canonical and still would meet that criteria of being truthful. It goes back to this issue of finding a language for experience.
If you make available to people the whole spectrum of literature – and don’t cut out the bits they might find initially difficult like (William) Shakespeare or (Geoffrey) Chaucer – there is something for everybody. So much of literature is human beings talking about human life and we’re all in the same medium there, so if you make available all of that literature, then you’ll find something that appeals to you.
This interview has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.