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Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

How this man helps ordinary people feel a book is written just for them

Why We Wrote This

Carsten Sommerfeldt was dismayed at a disconnect between authors and the public. So he became a proponent of Shared Reading – an alternative to book tours and book clubs.

Isabelle de Pommereau
Carsten Sommerfeldt quit his job to bring Shared Reading, in which participants read texts out loud, to Germany.

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As publicity director for German publishers, Carsten Sommerfeldt had exhilarating moments with some of the world’s best-known authors. Yet over the years, Mr. Sommerfeldt became disenchanted with the book circuit. And during an especially successful book tour, it hit him that he had to change paths. “The publishers were in heaven; the bookstores were in heaven,” he says. “But what was there for the readers?” He thought of launching book clubs or literary salons, “but I came to the same antagonism of some people claiming to know everything and others feeling less worth.” Then he heard about Jane Davis, a literature teacher from Liverpool, England, who helped people feel better by having them read literature out loud – an activity she called Sharing Reading. Sommerfeldt attended a training session for new Shared Reading facilitators, and he quit his job to launch Shared Reading in the German-speaking world. Now, more than 20 such groups are up and running. “The words make me think about life, and they give me strength,” says Dakhaz Hossin, a young mother participating in Shared Reading in Heidelberg, Germany.

On a recent evening on the outskirts of Heidelberg, a city in southern Germany with a long tradition of writers and philosophers, five young women and a man have come together to read prose and poetry out loud. They meet inside a colorful 1970s-era housing block that serves as a center for migrants during the day. There is a plate of cookies on the table and tea, black and herb. No smartphones.

Dakhaz Hossin, a young mother with long black hair, rushes in. She’s frazzled, having left her brothers and son to join the group. She begins to relax as Carsten Sommerfeldt, a white-bearded man in his 50s, passes around the story to be shared this evening. He starts to read the story out loud, pronouncing each word clearly. One might think he is a university professor.

Ms. Hossin takes in the words from “The Thief,” by Indian writer Ruskin Bond. She lets the story sink in before sharing her thoughts. In the story, Arun is a bad person, she says, a thief taking advantage of his friend. “What do you mean?” Mr. Sommerfeldt says encouragingly, probingly. Her comments trigger a round of soul-searching questions that explore life’s complexities.

Yet Sommerfeldt is not a professor, and this is no posh literary salon. A former publishing executive who became disillusioned with his job, Sommerfeldt is on a mission to bring the power of literature out of elitist circles and directly to the people – whoever they are and wherever they live.

Shared Reading, as the activity that Hossin was experiencing is known, is a remarkably simple concept with powerful effects. “It is about establishing a connection between you and the text,” Sommerfeldt says of the concept he brought from Britain almost three years ago. “Everybody carries personal stories and images worth sharing.”

Every week for 90 minutes, here and in libraries, bookstores, and other community centers across Germany, from Berlin to Hamburg, Frankfurt to Heidelberg, people meet in small groups. Senior citizens, refugees, troubled youths, and many others take turns reading texts aloud, pausing at regular intervals to reflect and share any thoughts or memories the passages have opened up. A trained volunteer facilitator moderates the discussion.

More than 20 such groups are up and running, and dozens more are planned to begin soon across Germany and Switzerland. In an increasingly fractured society, Sommerfeldt’s Shared Reading groups have become important platforms for encounters, allowing people to learn how to talk and listen to each other and work through their differences.

“It brings people together regardless of where they come from,” says Julia Kizhukandayil of the nonprofit Robert Bosch Foundation, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany, and supports initiatives promoting social cohesion.

After a while, a one-way street

Sommerfeldt had gone into the publishing world to share his passion for literature. As publicity director for Berlin Verlag first and Droemer Knaur later, he’d had exhilarating moments, including memorable book tours – and friendships – with some of the world’s best-known authors, such as Richard Ford and Margaret Atwood.

Yet over the years, from Sommerfeldt’s perspective the scene became a one-way street. Book tours consisted of “journalists asking questions, the author or [as is often the case in Germany] celebrities reading a few passages of a book, and people lining up to get the books signed,” he says.

And then it hit him that he had to change paths. It was during an especially successful book tour, drawing huge audiences. “The publishers were in heaven; the bookstores were in heaven,” he says. “But what was there for the readers?”

Missing was a connection between the author and the public. He yearned to “engage not just the authors but also the readers in a live conversation about what in particular they loved about the author and how important the book was to them,” Sommerfeldt says. “There had to be a way of sharing the power of literature, of making them feel that when they read a book, it’s written just for them.”

He thought of launching book clubs or literary salons, “but I came to the same antagonism of some people claiming to know everything and others feeling less worth.”

Then he heard about a literature teacher from Liverpool, England, who, through her nonprofit The Reader, had helped thousands of people feel better by having them read literature out loud.

As Sommerfeldt tells it, literature had helped Jane Davis through a difficult childhood. Although she worked at the University of Liverpool, she never felt at ease being an “expert” teaching literature. One day she started handing out prose and poetry to people not only in her class but also on the streets, inviting them to read aloud and discuss the pieces with her. Before she knew it, large crowds were taking part.

She created Shared Reading, which today has 5,000 facilitators who administer 500 groups in prisons, libraries, youth clubs, and hospitals across the United Kingdom.

“Jane found that when people actually read a piece aloud, that changes the whole outlook and perspective. It is something concrete that people could relate to,” Sommerfeldt says.

There it was, the connection he’d been craving to find. Two weeks later, Sommerfeldt found himself in Liverpool attending one of the training sessions Dr. Davis organized for new facilitators. Together with the other trainees, he scrutinized British writer David Constantine’s “In Another Country,” a story about an old man looking back at his married life.

“I was overwhelmed by the way the book came alive,” he remembers. “I didn’t realize how much of a powerful, immediate impact literature could have. This was much more than I could ever have imagined.”

Sommerfeldt quit his job to launch Shared Reading in the German-speaking world. Doors opened after he introduced the concept at the Leipzig Book Fair in 2016. It was greeted as “Germany’s new reading revolution.”

Calls poured in. From government offices to nonprofit groups to hospitals, people offered money to train facilitators and space to host Shared Reading groups.

The housing block

In Heidelberg, officials said Sommerfeldt could help the city fulfill its mission as one of 28 UNESCO Cities of Literature worldwide. Shared Reading is a “fantastic way” to fill in a gap, helping bring culture to society’s most vulnerable citizens, including older people and migrants, because “it works with everybody whether they can read or not,” says Ulrike Hacker of the Karlstorbahnhof, a nonprofit that promotes culture in Heidelberg.

Take Emmertsgrund, a neighborhood of high-rises built to relieve Heidelberg’s housing shortage. It’s home to families from the Middle East, guest workers from Turkey, Russian Germans, and many others.

“By bus, Emmertsgrund is a long, long way away,” Ms. Hacker says. “That’s why it was important to show Shared Reading can do good anywhere in a noncomplicated way. All you need are people who understand its potential and say, ‘Yes, I’m going to use it.’ ”

In Emmertsgrund, that person is Griseldis Kumm – a youth and community worker for almost two decades who is a passionate reader herself. When she heard the Heidelberg mayor rave about Sommerfeldt, she intuitively felt that Shared Reading could benefit some of the young people she works with, especially those with migrant backgrounds.

Among others, she invited Hossin as well as her sister, who are originally from Iraq, to take part. Ms. Kumm knew that for them to show up every Monday at 6 p.m. would be a huge challenge. And yet months later, they’re still coming, hardly ever missing a session.

Why?

“Those 90 minutes, they’re mine,” Hossin says. “When I come in, it feels like being in a sauna: You switch off; you’re with others. All you have to do is concentrate on the text.”

It’s not just that Shared Reading has opened a new world to her – that of Sylvia Plath and Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth Bowen and Shakespeare. It’s also that it’s helped her develop and accept new ways of looking at things, she says.

“The words make me think about life, and they give me strength,” Hossin says. “I take them home until next week.”

At Shared Reading, she adds, she can talk about feelings and thoughts without fear of being judged or reprimanded. “Carsten and Frau Kumm, they give me the feeling I’m safe,” she says.

Sommerfeldt remembers how shy Hossin had been about reading out loud at first. But when she brought German poet Heinrich Heine’s work “I love a flower” to the group recently and proceeded to read it aloud without stumbling, he knew that the Shared Reading model had struck a chord.

“I was baffled,” he says. “Dakhaz said, ‘I can do this; I can read to the others – maybe not as well, not as fast as the others, but I won’t let myself be put down.”

Over in Frankfurt

One reason that Shared Reading keeps growing is that it “is about people feeling personally inspired by it and then finding those individuals they’ll bring aboard,” says Hacker in Heidelberg.

In Frankfurt, a city of banks and glass towers some two hours north of Heidelberg, Benno Hennig von Lange, who works at Literaturhaus, a venue for literary events, saw Shared Reading as a chance to experience “the power of literature without the author being there.” Two years ago, he invited Sommerfeldt to host groups there.

Word soon spread to a nearby hospital. When Christiane Faust-Bettermann heard that Literaturhaus had launched Shared Reading, she said, “I want to be part of this, too.” Her hospital was always looking for ways to help patients – especially those dealing with depression or panic attacks – go home after a hospital stay. Shared Reading could be one of these ways. Mostly, “I felt it was something that I would benefit from, and if it benefited me, it could benefit others,” Dr. Faust-Bettermann says.

A partnership ensued, with Sommerfeldt moderating a group of former patients before Faust-Bettermann took the lead of the group herself, once she was trained.

With its imposing white facade and spacious, high-ceilinged rooms, Literaturhaus can be an intimidating place for regular folks. But it’s there that Faust-Bettermann’s 11 “shared readers” recently met to read and discuss Mr. Wolff’s short story “Powder.” Delving into questions about father-son relationships was an emotional moment for participant Ralf Ebert.

Indeed, Shared Reading grants people direct access to whatever it is in a book or poem that “touches you emotionally and personally,” Faust-Bettermann says. “Books and short stories encapsulate all the complex themes of life,” she says.

Mr. Ebert says Shared Reading helped him see better “how many perspectives there can be on one issue, and that not one is more important and justified than another,” he says. “It’s a small lesson in humility.”

Shared Reading, Ebert says, has given his life new impulse. He has learned how to harness the power hidden behind poems and to see how one’s imagination can propel one forward.

Far away in Heidelberg, Hossin says, “Shared Reading is a gift.” It comes every week, in a different color and shape, a different wrapping. “You have to learn how to accept it,” she says.

Ebert agrees, and he is not alone.

Other groups building a sense of community

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to improve levels of literacy in Ghana. Take action: Contribute to funds for community resource centers overseen by this group.

Globe Aware has a mission that includes working with children in slums and other disadvantaged youths. Take action: Donate money to build a community center in Romania for the Roma.

BRAC USA aims to empower people as well as communities dealing with poverty, illiteracy, disease, or social injustice. Take action: Financially support training for those who work with farmers to improve their harvests.

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