A birthday card I received this year shows four women of indeterminate age – looking rather like the wives who intimidated their menfolk in ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ – beneath the caption, My book club can beat up your book club. Inside, my friend admitted this wasn’t a fair representation of her group – after all, her fellow members didn’t wear hats or beads…
I was reminded of a reading groups’ event in Frome Library on World Book Night some years ago. Readers were invited to say a few words about the groups they represented and how they operated. One at least was run with what seemed like almost military precision: the list of titles was laid out months in advance, like a new student’s reading list, and each member was required to speak for five minutes – no more, no less – on the title selected. For others, it was clear that the half hour spent talking about a book was just a pretext for the shared supper, bottle of wine and gossip to follow.
The one I started some twelve years ago, at the London college where I worked, still manages a happy medium. We meet in the pub; each member takes turns to suggest three titles; the others vote on which to read. Nowadays, many of us are retired and don’t see each other daily, so we spend a while catching up before starting to discuss the current choice.
Our last meeting was a weird experience since they – we – were discussing my own book, The Tissue Veil. Set as it is in a part of London and an environment they all knew well, I was probably onto a winner, but I hope I’m right in believing their enjoyment and appreciation to be genuine. I know that one local group has also read it recently, but I’m anticipating an even more interesting experience when I visit family in the USA next month, as a relative there has suggested it to her book club — and invited me along.
When did it all start? Readers have always been keen to share information about their favourite books (think of Catherine and Isabella enthusing about Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey), but I suppose the modern book club is a millennial thing, inspired by the mass media versions from Oprah or Richard and Judy on television, or by those sponsored by daily newspapers. It still feels a privilege to spend time talking about a novel, seminar-style, but without the need to turn those thoughts into an essay.
The whole point of such groups is to encourage members out of their comfort-reading zones, but with some groups limiting choices to library copies or paperbacks, very recent publications may be ruled out. For most authors though, having a title seen as a good book club choice will certainly increase readership, hopefully sales too, and with literally dozens of groups in Frome alone, that can’t be a bad thing.