The Reading Agency [http://readinggroups.org/news/national-reading-group-day-2012.htm] has declared June 30th National Reading Group Day here in the UK, which makes it an auspicious day to reflect on the phenomenon of book groups and what they might contribute to re-storying human relationships with the more-than-human world.
For the past three years, I have been part of a “green” book group here in Edinburgh. Like all book groups we meet regularly to drink tea, eat biscuits and talk about books. If you asked any one of us why we enjoy the group, the reasons given would be similar to those of other book groups: our love of reading, our desire for friendship and connection in a disconnected world, and our need for an excuse to carve precious time for reading out of our speeded up lives. So what makes our group “green” and why do our discussions give me hope for the future of our beautiful planet?
The “green” bit comes through the books we choose, which always deal in some central way with people’s relationships to nature, the environment and the plants and animals we share this planet with. As long as the books provide good stories for us to sink our imaginations into, we happily read non-fiction as often as fiction. As a result, the books we’ve read have been all over the map, literally and figuratively. Through novels, we’ve voyaged from the Middle Ages of what is now Scotland, to early colonial Africa to post-apocalyptic California, reading children’s fiction as well as adult on the way. Through non-fiction we’ve visited Latin America, the Arctic and Kazakhstan. We’ve also revisited places in North America and the British Isles that some of us have travelled to, or even lived in, in our embodied lives.
Not everyone has liked every book equally well, but we’ve enjoyed each and every discussion. In fact, some of the best conversations have happened when there’s been profound disagreement over a particular book. It’s the discussions that give me hope. Nature-themed books have a surprisingly broad appeal, and our book group has attracted a diverse set of participants in terms of our environmental leanings. Discussing environmental issues, and what they mean to us personally, through the medium of someone else’s story has enabled us to take risks and explore points of view different from the ones we started with. Without fail, at every meeting someone exclaims “I never thought of it that way!” in response to someone else’s interpretation of the story. On the flipside, discussing the books we share in common has in turn reinforced and strengthened those values we do share, such as treating the world around us and the organisms who dwell in it with care and respect.
However, what gives me the most hope, and which convinces me that reading really does matter to the fate of the world, are the changes book group members have reported in what they see in their everyday lives. One of the group’s favourite books has been Robin Wall Kimmerer’s [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Wall_Kimmerer], “Gathering Moss” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources/0870714996], a series of personal essays by an American professor of biology. During the initial discussion of it, a number of people mentioned they’d noticed mosses growing just about everywhere they went. This was an eye-opening experience for them, as they’d previously been blind to the presence of these tiny flora. While it was reading the book that initially opened their eyes, it seemed that knowing they would soon be talking to others about mosses that cemented this change in perception. I experienced the same thing after reading and discussing Esther Wooflson’s “Corvus: A Life with Birds” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSources/9781582434773]. Edinburgh was suddenly full of crows and magpies. After Henry Wiliamson’s “Tarka the Otter” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarka_the_otter], I saw my first weasel in the Water of Leith (someone else in the group was lucky enough to actually see our local otter).
Our brains are highly skilled at filtering things out of our awareness. Learning what we ought to pay attention too is a social and imaginative process. It is my experience of having my perceptions of my local environment repopulated with earth others through participating in a “green” book club that has me celebrating on National Reading Group Day. If we can re-learn to see the web of life that we are a part of, even in cities, then that gives me hope for the furture.
Our green reading group welcomes new members, so if you live in Edinburgh and are interested in participating, please get in touch with me: restoryingtheearth at gmail dot com. I’d also be interested in hearing from similar reading groups around the world.
Dr Alette Willis is a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, where she studies how people use stories to give meaning to their lives and make everyday ethical decisions. She is also a fiction writer. She published several short stories in North American publications before moving to Scotland and publishing her first children’s novel “How to Make a Golem (and Terrify People)”, which won the Kelpies Prize in 2011. www.restoryingtheearth.com.