‘Electronic media just don’t cut it’ — A conversation with Dr Kevin Harvey
By Lois Payne
With additional reporting by Kat Yacovone and Annie Agathopoulou
Reading is often viewed as a solitary task, undertaken in a state of quiet concentration, but for Dr Kevin Harvey, an associate professor of sociolinguistics at the University of Nottingham, reading can provide a whole host of benefits when made collaborative. Kevin has long been fascinated in the power of shared literature as a tool for improving mental wellbeing and social inclusivity. Over email correspondence, we discuss the reading group he has been running for the past ten years. ‘We meet in Lenton, in a church hall,’ he writes. ‘We read stories and poems. Out loud. Out loud — meaning that everyone gets to experience them live, as one, under the same conditions. Discussion ensues. The talk can be lit critical — focusing on perspective, character development and so on — but it’s often evaluative and personal.’
Having attended a few of these meetings myself before the pandemic, I think back to the cosy church hall, the bustling of women preparing cups of tea and handing around the biscuit tin before settling down to read and, most of all, the sense of community that radiated through the sessions as we delved into works by Roald Dahl, D.H Lawrence and Simon Armitage. ‘The texts encourage people to speak,’ Kevin continues. ‘It’s genuinely cathartic. But also, extremely pleasurable — participants (myself included as a facilitator) are introduced to new authors, encounter texts we would never have read before. The shared reading group is also a social event. It brings people together. There’s nothing quite like it.’
Kevin also has a keen interest in the connection between ageing and mental wellbeing, particularly the effects of Dementia. Besides editing the Dementia Day-to-Day blog, he runs a series of reading groups for people with Dementia, which involve students reading poetry in care homes and local hospitals. When the pandemic forced these in-person meetings to a halt, Kevin was determined not to let all communication end. In response to these new, unusual circumstances, he set up the Care home Pen Pal scheme, wherein students could strike up a written correspondence with care home residents and ‘maintain some sort of intergenerational contact.’ He assures me, ‘Although Covid-19 has brought many aspects of social life to a standstill, it is powerless to stop people writing to one another, as they’ve been doing for centuries.’
‘There’s nothing like a letter for reaching out to someone,’ Kevin continues, ‘for maintaining a personal and social connection. Not everyone in a care home has ready access to email or other electronic platforms, but pen and paper are easily accessible and don’t require a Wi-Fi signal or dongle plug-in.’
I’m ashamed to admit that when I signed up to the scheme, I hadn’t actually sat down to write a letter in earnest, for years. In a world dominated by technology, where we can send a message to one another via text or email within seconds, there is something very real and profound about sitting down to construct a handwritten letter to a complete stranger. From deciding what topics to cover, which type of paper and pen to use, to the sunny walk down to the post box, I was struck by how much care goes into the process compared to other forms of communication, and it was genuinely rewarding to approach social contact in this way.
‘Electronic media just don’t cut it like handwritten letters,’ Kevin writes. ‘Handwriting — with its links, loops, and ascenders — reveals something about the personality of the writer that no keyboard can . . . And then there’s the physical act of sealing and opening a letter, the very tangible nature of paper, holding it, feeling it (even smelling it!). There is no virtual equivalent.’
Aside from harnessing the benefits of letters to serve the community, Kevin’s passion for the form extends into his personal life. ‘Apart from bills and utilities, I love receiving letters,’ he tells me. ‘I love reading letters, and I love reading novels, stories and poems about letters. Some of the most affecting reading experiences have been related to letters and letter writing. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story ‘The Letter Writer’ is a fine example (if you haven’t read it, read it — read it now).’
Kevin also practises the format within his own home, as a creative way to engage with his family. ‘I like writing short letters and leaving them round the house for my daughter to find,’ he writes. ‘Letters from Christmas elves and tooth fairies enquiring about planetary life in Beeston.’
In what has been an ever-changing and confusing world as of late, letters can be used as a tool to ground us, and tether us to what is important. Whether you are corresponding with friends, family, or a complete stranger, they can be the perfect way to establish a connection. Amidst the uncertainty, Kevin is grateful for the sense of warmth and familiarity that receiving a letter, as opposed to other forms of messages, can afford. ‘I received a short letter from my mum this Easter — wishing my family and me a happy Easter,’ he tells me. ‘My mother’s handwriting hasn’t changed in over fifty years — it’s remarkable how constant one’s hand can be.’
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