Reading as a shared pursuit, rather than an individual pleasure, has grown significantly in recent years. But if the rise on rise of the social book club took place in the late 20th century, shared reading on a bigger scale is a largely 21st century phenomenon.
The first ‘One City, One Book’ initiative took place in Seattle in 1998, and the initiative spread quickly. By 2007 the Library of Congress listed 404 similar projects. In the UK, Brighton set up the initial scheme in 2005 and others have followed suit, for example London’s CityRead began in 2012 and features a book by Gillian Slovo this year.
Nancy Pearl, who set up the Seattle initiative warned against expecting too much: "Keep in mind that this is a library program, it's not an exercise in civics, it's not intended to have literature cure the racial divide. This is about a work of literature." But it is clear that ambitions have often moved beyond simply sharing reading material, as may be glimpsed from Belfast and Dublin’s 2016 ‘Two Cities One Book’ initiative. In diplomacy terms shared reading can be seen as the exercise of ‘soft power’; a largely uncontroversial yet persuasive way of influencing hearts and minds.
Large scale reading projects, working with other specific communities, have developed on both sides of the Atlantic, from schools and hospitals to detention centres and prisons. But within universities, this has remained a mostly US phenomenon, limited to pre-arrival shared reading for new university students, aimed at creating an early sense of community, and improving engagement and retention.
I first heard of pre-arrival shared reading in 2006, at The International Conference of the Book in Boston. Looking into this on my return, what struck me was that whereas such schemes were common in the US, they were relatively little analysed; they tended to be described within marketing outreach rather than systematically probed for outcomes and consequences.
Keen to organise something similar at Kingston, supporting argument was not hard to find. There is a wealth of evidence that reading is good for people, and reading for pleasure correlates with all sorts of benefits from good health to professional success. The role of the book is also well established as a shared space for both boosting a sense of community, and a vehicle onto which can be projected issues that are too hard to talk about.
Keen to promote the engagement and retention of our students, I found the academic literature around transition from home to university places a lot of emphasis on students’ early experience, before they arrive and during the first few weeks. Finally we explored the attitudes of our 2014 cohort of first years, asking them about their leisure activities, the part played by reading for pleasure, and how they felt about the idea of receiving – and reading – a book before arrival. Their responses were extremely positive, with much more reading going on than we had expected. We went ahead and launched The KU Big Read in 2015, circulating 10,000 copies of Kingston graduate Nick Hornby’s About a Boy to students coming to join us and making copies available to staff.
The book went out in a polylope, so the contents could be seen – prompting discussion within families.
Students loved the scheme, commenting on social media that they felt ‘expected’, ‘valued’ and even ‘comforted’ by ‘their university’. What was more surprising was the strong enthusiasm of staff, who across the institution reported feeling ‘more joined up’ and ‘connected’. Questionnaring afterwards revealed very high levels of discussion, often with multiple categories (e.g. colleagues, family, friends and neighbours). The idea spread quickly: both our Estates and Finance Departments organised shared reading as part of team-building; HR started giving out the book as part of staff induction; our VC used the book as a calling card – and we ended up ordering two reprints. Nick Hornby came and gave a talk – and there was standing room only. Our drop-out rate fell significantly.
In 2016 we ran the scheme again, this time collaborating with Edinburgh Napier to see how things worked across two universities. Through wide consultation we chose a book to share and produced 20,000 copies of a special Kingston edition of Matt Haig’s The Humans (right) with a further 8,000 for Edinburgh Napier. Now in our second year, this time Kingston reached out in to the wider community. We sold copies to The Royal Borough of Kingston for distribution via their libraries, to U3A for distribution to their members and gave copies to a shelter for the homeless, supporting each group with events and discussion opportunities. We collaborated with The Pigeonhole to make a digital version available and watched students and staff comment ‘in the margins’ and establish reading groups online. All this activity is now being measured for effectiveness – and what can be learned for next time.
Publishing regularly depends on effective collaboration, across roles and sectors, and the various alliances we have built have been central to our success to date. With margins under pressure, and budgets being cut, shared reading initiatives across communities offer an effective model for the industry, HE and the wider cultural landscape.
"I am a huge supporter of The KU Big Read," says David Shelley, c.e.o. of Hachette. "I think it is beneficial to students as it gives them the opportunity to be part of a shared experience of reading a great book. It also benefits publishers as it is a terrific way of promoting an author’s work. It benefits authors for that same reason, and because KU ensures that authors’ royalties are paid on all copies distributed. By targeting this generation of readers, who don’t always read for pleasure, KU are also helping to encourage literacy amongst a crucial demographic. I think it’s one of the best and most innovative ways of promoting reading that I’ve seen."
The KU Big Read wins Kingston University’s Rose Award for Best Project of the Year 2016 – the nominated team included representatives from right across the organisation, from the library and reception team to colleagues from delivery and design.
Significantly we were recently asked to present the work as a good practice case study to the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, which is considering the ways in which learning is evolving in the library context.
Looking back, what has been created is so much more than was envisaged. But perhaps the seemingly natural fit of shared reading between students, staff and wider community should not surprise us. Given that students come to university to ‘read’ for a degree, perhaps connecting them through a book is the best possible start to the big life changes that await. As one postgraduate Architecture student commented: "What a good idea and I can see what you are trying to do. There is such a trend for pressurising students to think that careers are the most important thing in life. This scheme makes it clear that they are a long way off the most important thing and that making friends is crucial."