Books, the new healers

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Read anything good over the holidays? In school next Friday, you can swap Virginia Woolf for your colleague's car magazine. Geraldine Brennan explains why reading a little of what you fancy does you good

Saturday, September 8, is a big day. It's not only the first day off this term for many teachers, and the Virgin Mary's birthday, but also International Literacy Day, not to be confused with World Book Day (March 14, 2002) or National Poetry Day (October 4), which falls in National Children's Book Week.

And on the eve of the snappily titled celebration of reading and adult learning (set up by Unesco in 1967) comes Swap a Book Day, next Friday's effort by the National Reading Campaign to raise the profile of reading for pleasure in workplaces, including schools. Teachers have more reason than most to be wary of bringing their secret reading lives out of the closet to be scrutinised by colleagues and pupils. Three years after the launch of the National Year of Reading, the nationwide reading promotion now continued by the campaign, guilt about taking time for personal reading is still endemic in the profession.

Those who saved up the books they got for Christmas to read over the summer might not have finished them yet. They might not want their colleagues, who are probably reading Proust in French, to know that they are still stuck on the first Bridget Jones, or even the first Adrian Mole (it's probably quite cool to have only just got round to the first Harry Potter). The potential of Swap a Book Day has been spotted by schools able to get organised in time for next Friday: it's a good way to build on pupils' summer reading, to help children who are new this term to make friends through books and to encourage a reading-friendly climate. But the national focus of the day is on colleagues exchanging ideas about books they have enjoyed (London cab drivers, call centre staff, even Department for Education administrators are among those taking part), and it could spur teachers to make time for their own reading.

"My impression is that teachers, possibly along with other professionals, are increasingly sacrificing this bit of personal quality time, and it's a great shame," says Elaine Harrison, until last summer an English teacher at Scissett middle school in Kirklees LEA, West Yorkshire. She retired at 50 after 25 years in the classroom, 15 of them at Scissett. "I really loved the job, but I wanted to stop before I became resentful and while I still had the energy to do something else," she says.

Extra time to read books of her choice is one of the benefits of being no longer "ruled by bells". "I enjoyed keeping up with literature for 10 to 13-year-olds - I still love Robert Westall, Anne Fine and Michael Morpurgo - but I've got a lot of catching up to do with novels for adults. I used to manage a Maeve Binchy or a Joanna Trollope as comfort reading in the holidays but I felt constantly frustrated at the lack of time to read more widely." Now, reading for pleasure is part of her job: within six weeks of leaving Scissett, Mrs Harrison had been hired as one of the first three "bibliotherapists" in the country who "prescribe" books to help heal adults suffering from mild to moderate depression, anxiety or poor general health.

The Bibliotherapy project, set up by Kirklees public libraries a year ago to show that reading fiction and poetry can be good for you, has just received funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for a second year. "When you work in a library you know how good reading is for people, but nothing had been done to measure it," says Kirklees's principal librarian, Catherine Morris, who first thought of the scheme when funding became available for reader development work that made links between libraries and health. In the report on the first year of the project, satisfied participants used phrases such as "uplift without pill prescriptions" and "more relaxing than a relaxation class". Ms Morris quotes Samuel Johnson in her conclusion: "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it."

Elaine Harrison is based at a mobile library serving the outskirts of Huddersfield. She works one-to-one with adults over 16 who do not belong to a library: some have been referred by community health workers or GPs, others contacted through self-help groups for people with depression. She suggests books tailored to her clients' tastes and state of mind, introduces them to library services and sets up small, informal reading groups. This term, she will be working with a group of permanently excluded Year 11 pupils in Huddersfield, while the health-related Bibliotherapy work expands into neighbouring Calderdale and takes on an additional three "therapists". The project, she believes, has a message for the wider public. "Reading is part of looking after yourself. You can read quite a lot in 15 or 20 minutes and it leaves you feeling refreshed, yet people are almost proud to tell you they're too busy."

The answer might be along the lines of the advice that author and scriptwriter Jenny Colgan offers people who tell her how they could knock out a bestseller, such as her Amanda's Wedding and Talking to Addison, if only they had the time. "Write whenever EastEnders is on, but turn the television off first," she said at a session at last month's Edinburgh Book Festival (which was knee-deep in teachers, who could have been at home reading). Failing that, find something else to sacrifice - housework, exercise or sleep.

Jennifer Russell, in her fifth year of teaching in the English department at Newbattle community high school in Dalkeith, Midlothian, props her eyelids up for an extra 45 minutes a night so that she can read something off the curriculum menu. "For the first four years, I told myself I was too busy. Now I tell myself I need it to relax and get over the school day, and it makes me a better teacher. It's worth staying awake to do it."

Miss Russell is in charge of raising attainment throughout the school, emphasising reading for pleasure. As the new term started in Scotland last week, she was preparing to entice colleagues to take part in Swap a Book Day. With librarian Mary Cameron, she plans to set up a board in the library for staff and pupils to advertise books they are willing to lend, inspired by Noel Edmonds's TV show Swap Shop("I'm a child of the Seventies"). Headteacher Colin Taylor is offering a book token to the teacher who lends the most books on September 7 and Miss Russell will accept DIY books, cookbooks or specialist magazines from those who don't want to reveal their taste in fiction. "It's interesting for pupils to see what kind of hobbies teachers have as well as what they really read, and I'm hoping people will see something they want to read and feel encouraged to make time for it."

Inspectors and supply teachers have commented on the camaraderie among the staff at Newbattle and Miss Russell is confident that next Friday will be a roaring success. (She's bringing Philip Larkin's Jill to school as her offering.) Next, she's got plans for Swap a Video Day and Swap a CD Day. And the National Reading Campaign has good news for those for whom September 7 comes a little too soon: if you miss the big day, it's okay to do it later.

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