Michael Verde leads literary discussions of life-changing books all along the North Shore. These discussions are known as “Reading for Life.” His intellectually riveting presentations draw people together around a common imaginative and social experience. Books and people come alive in these events, creating a perfect space for authentic relationship building and intellectual discussion. Verde is a published author, professional speaker, and award-winning educator. In 2003, he founded the internationally recognized Memory Bridge foundation that promotes empathetic communication with people with Alzheimer’s disease.
What does the name “Reading for Life” mean to you?
We can read literature for all sorts of reasons. We can read to “get ready for the test,” to be “in the cultural know,” or because we want to forget about life, and so on. But we can also read literature because we sense that what we read, and how we read it, changes the quality of our life in some vital way: makes us more aware of the world around us and the world within us; enables us to get out of our own ego, however briefly, and experience the world as it looks and feels from the perspective of others; frees us from the inherited assumptions of our particular social worlds and provides us with an alternative source of beliefs and values. This kind of reading—reading as if the quality of your one time on the planet depends upon what and how you read—is what I mean by Reading for Life.
What is your vision for Reading for Life?
In the not too distant future, I anticipate we will experience “Book Club Craze 2.” Book clubs in the future will, I predict, grow into communities of intentional readers. The meetings will be facilitated by reading facilitators. Capable facilitators will enable the community to coordinate their individual imaginations with the deep structures and spiritual energies of great works of art. They will be communities of people who are convinced that “virtual” communities and popular forms of media entertainment do not offer a rich enough imaginative diet for a truly meaningful and fulfilling life. I want Reading for Life to be a pioneer in that kind of intentional community building.
What is your methodology for truly reading a novel?
All meaningful reading is re-reading. By that I mean that we cannot experience the formal beauty or spiritual profundity of a literary masterpiece without spending sustained time in its company. Imagine if someone met you once over coffee and walked away convinced that he or she really understood you. You would have to be a very shallow person for that to be true. Great novels are never shallow; they are never variations of a stock type. I used to tell my students and continue to tell myself, “until you have read a novel three times, you haven’t really read it at all.” So the first method of life-changing reading is to forget trying to read everything new and begin reading a handful of great novels multiple times.
Do you have any advice about how to help develop a child’s passion for reading?
Some people find reading naturally pleasurable. You can’t make your children love to read. But what you can do is be a dedicated reader yourself. You can live with your books, make your time with them a core commitment. In this way, your children will experience reading as an essential part of living life to its fullest. As Jem says about his sister Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: “she never learned to read; she was born reading.” If your children grow up in a world that turns on books, they are, we might say, born reading.
What are the top five novels that you recommend for everyone’s bucket list?
First I should say that I encourage people to discover their own personal greats. But here are five of my all-time favorites: Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Love in the Time of Cholera, and The Things They Carried.
You founded a non-profit organization named Memory Bridge. Can you tell me about this organization and why it is important to you?
People with dementia often experience profound loneliness, partly because their friends and sometimes even members of their family begin treating them as if they are only sort of here—begin treating them over time almost like objects, as difficult as it is to say that. This kind of suffering—the suffering of emotional isolation—can be healed. We can be with people with dementia in profoundly meaningful ways, even life changing ways, no matter what their cognitive imperfections may be. Memory Bridge (memorybridge.org) is an organization learning how to be with people with dementia from people with dementia. We lead training retreats and educational programs for professional and personal caregivers, students, and volunteers in which people with dementia are the teachers. We learn how to be with people with dementia by letting go of judgments, letting in emotional awareness, and letting be new “normals.” In this way, we are working to heal the dis-ease of dementia. We do not have to wait for a cure to begin ending the loneliness.