Here at Literature Works we're interested in the positive impact that reading can have on both health and wellbeing for readers. This year, we're partnering with the South West Region of Readers on a digital app centred around books that make you feel good. As we put together our book list, we came across The Park Bench Reader, a commission by artist Bram Thomas Arnold which will be part of this year's Plymouth Art Weekender which has at its heart the practice of bibliotherapy.

So what exactly is bibliotherapy? A practice attributed to ‘Ancient times’, it involves using the reading of books as therapy in the treatment of some mental or physiological disorders. Unlike similar ‘group’ approaches to reading for pleasure and wellbeing such as book groups for example, bibliotherapy offers tailored experiences for individual readers.

A session with a bibliotherapist can help people to identify their readerly identities by looking at reading history and future prospects and by exploring the sometimes hidden connections between the books we choose to read and our emotional or physical wellbeing. As part of the service, bibliotherapists will sometimes recommend a ‘prescription’ of books which they feel will offer that reader a positive mechanism for coping with traumas, stresses or ailments of the mind or body.

With reading based projects such as our Reading Passport or One Giant Read projects, we try to connect reading with positivity, be that by recommending a list of books which provide a passport to literary adventures or by sending you to outer space alongside the historic Principia mission with our sci-fi genre based One Giant Read and will continue to do so as we champion reading in our community.

When we heard that Bram was coming to Plymouth Art Weekender 2017 and bringing the unique commission The Park Bench Reader to the city centre, we knew we had to catch up with him and find out more about the project and just why he thinks that reading is so important….

Can you tell us a little bit about The Park Bench Reader – how did it come about?

The Park Bench Reader came out of some research I was doing into reading, mixed with a lot of reading, and owed quite a lot to the experimental MA course in Arts & Ecology that ran at Dartington College of Arts from 2006 – 2010. At its root is a fascination for historical overlaps and intercisions. The park bench [arguably] owes its presence in popular culture to the Victorians, the first public park (Derby Arboretum) opening in 1840, the same decade that saw classic works of English literature published by the likes of Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Thackeray and others. Novels at the time, were, like literacy, a rare luxury, Dickens’ novels published in weekly editions that were read aloud down the pub, like a weekly Eastender’s episiode. So there was this. And then there was this resurgent idea of bibliotherapy that the NHS were experimenting with in Liverpool at the time, the idea that reading a novel aloud in a group could have benefits for patients with both mental and physical traumas, the sharing of the human condition. The Park Bench Reader was a move against the quickening pace of society, the emergence of smart phones, the phrase “screen-time” and how it was eating away at us as a society, and it was about trying to take this notion of bibliotherapy, and give the city a dose of it, to take the idea outside and walk it about to reclaim public space from corporate endeavour and do something romantic, and whimsical, seemingly futile and yet full of hope.

Here at Literature Works we’re interested in how various art-forms can work together and inspire one another. As an artist, what inspired you to take a multi-disciplinary approach to your work and how important do you think it is for the arts to be viewed in this way?

As previously mentioned I’ll just elaborate a little on the MA in Arts & Ecology that I undertook at Dartington. The subtext of the course was that ecology did not just describe the environment as distinct from us, that there was an ecology of economics and society just as much as there was an ecology of butterflies or forests. That ecology as opposed to nature, talks of all of us, everything under the sun at once. That there is no outside from which our environment can be viewed, we are all inside the picture frame. As such the course encouraged something that moved beyond multi- or inter- disciplinary practice to develop a space for what I and others now refer to as transdisciplinary practice, the distinction being that multi- or inter- practices are very much still subservient to their combined disciplines, whereas trans- disciplinary practice transcends those traditional boundaries and does so by exposing the fact that the gaps between disciplines are not gaps, they are merely links that are yet to be described and uncovered. The job of artists is to hold onto a fluidity, to realise that the only constant state is one of change, and that the only certainty is that things are uncertain. [As someone who is] dyspraxic, since studying art alongside science and fine art alongside ecology, I have been looking for ways to comingle approaches of art and science, disciplinary boundaries have always confounded and frustrated me, ever since I got told off by my 4th year maths teacher…

We’re interested in the way that books and reading can impact on wellbeing in readers. Can you tell us a little bit about how biblio-therapy plays a role in your work?

Bibliotherapy was fundamental to the idea’s first steps, but I think there are more ways it can become involved. The reason I really wanted to take up The Park Bench Reader again was because bibliotherapy has, over the past ten years, become much more present, I think The Park Bench Reader could be used as a way of taking the notion that reading aloud can be good for your health and convert that into a situation whereby reading aloud can be good for everyone’s health and everyone’s wellbeing.

On a park bench in New York in 2008 I read aloud from an Orwell novel to an unsuspecting couple on a bench one of whom transcribed the event onto a postcard while she was sat there, that the story spoke to her, reminded her of something in herself, and sent her straight to the nearest bookshop… I think the point of interest is that people have to choose to go to a bibliotherapy group, and that many therefore simply wouldn’t but you take that idea out into public space, and no one is forced to listen, but that everyone is able to, is important, essential.

Do you have a favourite novel or text to read as part of The Park Bench Reader and do you take requests from audiences?

Brilliant that you ask this, in many ways it’s an obvious question but great. I love the challenge of having a favourite, the ridiculousness of it. For everything changes, but I’m an indie kid, I spent my youth compiling lists of my favourite everything and then changing them all the time…

In 2007 for Live Art Falmouth I invited people to read aloud from their favourite novel and to see what they would bring. But I’m not sure I’m going to tell you mine right now, at the time of that event it was Les Grand Mealnes by Alain Fournier. If you want to know what mine is you might have to find me on a bench on the Sunday of the Weekender as the 24th will be My favourite novel day whereby I invite everyone to come to Armada Way with their favourite novel at 3pm and find a bench, share a bench, dare to share a conversation once again, with a stranger, a story, it’s just a story, we tell each other stories in order to live.

We think the practice of shared reading should be developed more widely. How can people get involved in The Park Bench Reader and what’s the most important thing they should bring to a reading?

I am looking for readers as we speak. This being a public event I have had to alert the council to which benches I wish to use and as such the event will be coordinated over the three days. So please email me if you’re interested via either bramthomasarnold@gmail.com or plymouthartweekender@gmail.com with ‘reader’ in the subject line.

The three days will each be approached differently with Sunday being ‘My favourite Novel’, Saturday being Penguin Classics day and Friday, I’m not sure yet, a surprise perhaps…. As I mention in my performance/lecture at the Athenaeum, what The Park Bench Reader will be for Plymouth is not for me to decide, it is a thing for the city, for the readers, for the listeners…

The most important thing to bring to a reading in September might be an umbrella, but more seriously it might be an open mindedness, a desire to let the event unfold, to let it be what it becomes, if you are reading and someone talks to you, talk to them, be open to the pages of another viewpoint, for that is what the park bench is for.

Thanks Bram!

The Park Bench Reader will be appearing on Armada Way across the weekend of 22nd, 23rd and 24th September.

If you would like to become a Park Bench Reader for the weekend, let Bram know