Page Against the Machine: an interview with The Book Hive
Joe Hedinger discusses the power and importance of reading

Do you feel like you want to read more, but always struggle to find time in the day to do so? We sat down with bookseller Joe Hedinger from The Book Hive to discuss his incredible project ‘Page Against the Machine’ and the importance of reading for our mental and emotional wellbeing.

How did Page Against the Machine come about?

We created Page Against the Machine in 2017, after seeing some alarming research from The Reading Agency (commissioned to mark World Book Night). Their stats revealed that 67% of UK adults would like to read more — and not just for entertainment. Nearly two thirds of people said they’d like to turn to a book in times of stress, anxiety or illness — or use reading to help them navigate the ups and downs of relationships.

But there’s a problem! Nearly half of us (48%) aren’t able to find the time or space to read, because the demands and distractions of our busy, hectic lifestyles get in the way. Sadly, the reason people want to read (busy, stressful lives)… is the reason they can’t read (busy, stressful lives). It’s a vicious circle.

We decided to try and break the loop. Our key insight was thinking about reading as a practice. Rather than snatching a few lines before bed or on your commute (when you’re tired), what if reading was something you committed regular, quality time to — just like putting an hour aside every week for the gym, yoga or meditation?

And that’s when Page Against the Machine was born — every Wednesday, our bookshop stays open an extra hour between 5.30pm and 6.30pm. We invite people travelling home from work to stop in, and simply read, together, for an hour.

The simple action of picking up a book can be ‘a vital tool for social and personal change’

Is there a benefit of reading that people may find surprising?

There are many, many benefits.

In fact, The Reading Agency (whose insights into reading behaviours inspired the creation of Page Against the Machine) just released a whole load of new research showing that reading actually boosts self-esteem, supports mental health, sparks curiosity and connects us to others. The report goes as far to say that the simple action of picking up a book can be ‘a vital tool for social and personal change’.

Adults who read for just 30 minutes a week are 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction, 52% more likely to feel socially included and 57% more likely to have better awareness of other cultures.

Not too bad for a £8.99 paperback – or a book borrowed for free from the library!

The first Page Against the Machine in 2017 had 15 people in attendance. How has the event grown and changed shape over the years?

We’ve been running Page Against the Machine for six years now, and in that time we’ve seen it evolve and develop quite a bit. On a basic level, we’re always amazed at the range of people it attracts, and how we have ‘regulars’ but also new faces all the time – students, retirees, young professionals, families… During the covid lockdowns, we decided to keep Page Against the Machine going by moving it online, via Zoom — and that turned out to be quite a moment, because we ended up reaching more readers than ever before, in Cambridge, London and even the Netherlands. And, due to the concept being picked up by the press, it’s actually been adopted, with our blessing, by several other bookshops in the UK – and even one in Canada.

Anyone can read anywhere, at any time, for any length of time, and nobody needs to ‘fit’ any sort of aesthetic or lifestyle to ‘be’ a reader

The other very exciting way that the event has changed shape is the introduction of a yearly special as part of the City of Literature Weekend at Norwich & Norfolk Festival. This is a larger, outdoor version in the beautiful surroundings of Norwich’s Plantation Garden. In 2023, to celebrate ten years of Norwich being a UNESCO City of Literature, we’re going one step further with this – opening up to the world by inviting people in UNESCO Cities of Literature all over the globe to join in with their own quiet reading hour.

Page Against the Machine has created an incredible space for people to find time to come together and read. Do you have any advice for people trying to implement that routine in their daily lives too?

Yes – try and completely ignore your prior conceptions of what ‘reading’ and ‘being a reader’ is or ‘should’ be! Instagram and the like constantly pushes the idea that ‘reading’ has to involve a big squishy chair, a cup of coffee, a big slice of cake, a particularly picturesque view out of the window… Or that you need to be a certain type of intellectual or cultural person to really ‘get’ reading. All of that is nonsense. Anyone can read anywhere, at any time, for any length of time, and nobody needs to ‘fit’ any sort of aesthetic or lifestyle to ‘be’ a reader. You just need you, and a book. Reading doesn’t have to be a ‘cosy’ thing – it’s vibrant, dynamic, exciting, adaptable, portable, sociable. This is one of things we constantly try to do at The Book Hive – explode everyone’s expectations of what reading is and can be.

Do you have a favourite book to read when life gets particularly stressful?

No – I’d say it’s more the act of reading that helps, rather than the reading of a particular title. Plus, part of the delight of being a bookseller is that I get to read and discuss so many books that my ‘favourites list’ is constantly shifting and changing and being usurped or rearranged. I think our relationship to books is an organic, ever-changing thing – the way they are a companion to us shifts over time. The key then, is making that time – developing a habit of reading is what can really unlock the power of books.

Fancy taking an hour out of your weekend to relax with a book?

Come and join us for a global Page Against the Machine in the Plantation Garden on Saturday 27 May at 1pm! Book your ticket here →

A Norfolk & Norwich Festival and National Centre for Writing presentation, programmed by the National Centre for Writing. In partnership with The Book Hive. Supported by the UNESCO Cities of Literature network.

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