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Books, Features

Book Groups – What’s Your Story?

Completely random selection of titles we've discussed

It’s amazing to think that something so important in my life came about because of a casual comment to someone I didn’t know very well, just four little words:  ‘I want to write’.  It was probably the first time I’d said it out loud and I felt like a pretentious idiot, but the lovely smiley lady I was chatting to at a toddler group enthused and invited me to join a new book group she and a friend were starting.  My younger son was nearly two and I’d gone from sociable office inmate to understimulated stay-at-home mum – it was a joy and a luxury to spend time with my children but adult conversation was in short supply, plus I’d had enough of talking about babies.

That was eight years ago, before book groups became the huge phenomenon they are today.  This is the story of my own experiences, plus a distillation of the hundreds of conversations I’d have had about this subject that fascinates me.  One of the reasons I started this blog was because I’m always being asked for book suggestions and sometimes even for advice on how to set up a new group. Being Selective – How do you choose which books to read? is one of my top posts to date and sparked a great debate – I hope lots of you will chip in with tales of your own literary gatherings, and if the members of my group see it differently (what am I saying, ‘if’ ?) I doubt if they’ll hold back.

There are of course many ways a book club can work, but this is how ours does and we’re all very happy with it.  We are seven women who meet once a month in each others’ homes; book groups, like reading fiction in general, do seem to be an overwhelmingly female thing.  Over time four members have come and gone, but the present membership has held firm since our newest member joined about four years ago.  It’s dead man’s shoes now – we’ve agreed that 7 is the perfect number to fit round a dining table, small enough for everyone to join in the discussion.

Compared to many of the set-ups I’ve heard about, ours is pretty informal.  We turn up, order a takeaway and get stuck into the wine.  We have a good general catch-up on the month’s news, as several of us don’t see the others outside meetings.  We do always discuss the book, again very informally, with everyone free to contribute their views as in any other conversation.  Some groups do it very differently: there are meetings in libraries open to all, meetings in pubs, church halls, some with no social element and even, perish the thought, no food or booze.  I’ve recently come across book groups you pay to attend, with a facilitator (nice work if you can get it).  It’s not uncommon for the person who chose the book to give a short presentation, or for the members to take it in turns to share their responses –  bad luck if you go last and there’s nothing left to say!  We’re not that polite or well-behaved.

I asked my friends what they like about our meetings and they all said the chemistry, the dynamics.  I completely agree, but that’s largely down to luck.  The 7 of us have a lot in common including, very broadly similar taste in reading material (if you’re going to get anything right, make it this) but we are also incredibly different people and personalities.  Our occupations are: primary school teacher, chief exec of a charity, head of asset management for a housing association, teaching assistant, entrepreneur/yummy mummy, head of funds research for a bank, plus me.  I love going along not having a clue what anyone else will think of that month’s choice.  One thing’s for sure, we all feel comfortable giving our honest opinion and that gives rise to some really interesting discussions and even arguments.  I’ve heard about several groups with an Alpha personality whose opinion the others don’t like to dispute – I don’t think they’d enjoy an evening with us.

So many times I’ve come away feeling that I’ve gained by hearing the others’ views, the things they noticed that I didn’t, the cultural insights that I was unaware of.  It’s astonishing how few books have achieved any kind of consensus:  we were equally shell-shocked by We Need To Talk About Kevin years ago, we all responded strongly to Room and Pigeon English, and last year The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell was a rare book we all absolutely loved.  Sometimes we are a bit disorganised when it comes to choosing what to read – drunkenly reading out blurbs from Amazon on an i-Phone at midnight probably isn’t the best way to do it, but we haven’t had that many total duds.

Something book group members always say is that it broadens their literary horizons.  If one of us feels we really can’t face a particular title (luckily we all shy away from books involving child abuse and anything totally depressing), we won’t choose it, but we’ve all agreed to books we didn’t fancy and been glad that we did.  You also start to develop a radar for what might make good discussion material – many books just don’t fuel a conversation.  Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a stunning piece of writing but like watching very beautiful paint dry.  I’ll never live down the day I announced that I didn’t join a book group to discuss Nick Hornby (well, I didn’t!) – they ignored me, enough said.  Some of the more unusual groups I’ve heard of concentrate on non-fiction or out of print titles.  We also spend a lot of time talking about what we’ve been reading outside the group.  One of our great highlights was when Chris Wakling, author of What I Did, joined us for our discussion of his novel.  We’re still talking about that night, and I’m hoping to get a few more writers along in due course.

Thanks to two of our number, we go for long weekends twice a year to the New Forest and SW France, which is a blissfully extended version of what we all enjoy so much.  Our partners have got to know each other and we’ve become a group of close friends.  Between us we have 19 children ranging in age from 5 to 18, and of course our lives have moved on enormously, some now dealing with both teenagers and vulnerable elderly parents.  The group means even more to me, because they were the ones who reminded me I’d said I wanted to write.  In 2009, yes, a shocking five years later, I finally took the plunge and last month they read the novel I’ve written and spent the whole evening discussing it.  I will never forget that night.  For me, that alone made it worth doing.

*POSTSCRIPT*

For book suggestions, try my Book Review section and Fiction Hot Picks for 2012

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

Discussion

10 thoughts on “Book Groups – What’s Your Story?

  1. Really enjoyed that – makes me want to start a book group! Or at least join one…

    Posted by evahudson | February 21, 2012, 13:27
  2. The Berwick Book Group is organised by New Writing North and we’re lucky enough to have a facilitator, Barbara, who makes sure we all get a chance to speak and writes up our opinions for a blog each month. Although it’s more formal than yours (NWN chooses the books) we get a healthy mix of genres/titles and I welcome the impetus to read out of my comfort zone each month. We also have two male members! It’s such a pleasure to spend time with like-minded people and I’ve made some good friends who I now see outside of the meetings.
    Book groups are a wonderful thing and if I ever moved somewhere which didn’t have one I think I would have to start my own.
    I think you’re very brave letting your group read your novel, and it must have been great to hear how much they enjoyed it. Not sure if I’m ready for that.

    Posted by Janet O'Kane | February 21, 2012, 18:45
  3. What an excellent post, and how wonderful that you’ve found such a great group of friends to discuss books with (and travel with!). Have been in two lurching book clubs in the past that turned out to be un-self-sustaining. Looks like I should try again!

    Posted by Kristin | February 22, 2012, 12:20
    • Thanks Kristin, really glad you enjoyed the article. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that it can take several attempts to find a book group that ‘fits’ but definitely worth persevering I would say. I guess where you live it would be a German language one – at least Swiss German doesn’t make it into print!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 22, 2012, 12:56
  4. A wonderful post, Isabel. How lucky you are to have found a great bunch of people who indulge in your passion of books. I have never been a member of a book club, but your story makes me want to join one right now. Thanks for sharing:)

    Posted by Jane Isaac | February 22, 2012, 12:33
    • You’re welcome Jane, I am indeed very lucky with my bookgroup and I value my appreciative blog followers too! Living in Muswell Hill I was under the mistaken impression that everyone belongs to a bookgroup – but if this post inspires anyone to join one, that makes me very happy.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 22, 2012, 12:59
  5. Your group sounds lovely, Isabel! I reluctantly left mine though guilt at frequently not finishing the books – oops! I struggled with the concept of continuing with something I really didn’t get on with when I had shelves of books I wanted to get stuck into. However, that felt discourteous to the person who’d chosen the month’s book so I reluctantly left, dragging my ‘could try harder’ report behind me. It would be nice to be part of a book group again but do find that I end up discussing books in other situations anyway. I was on a girls’ trip away this weekend (I know, it was awful 😉 and when I think about it, we discussed books a lot around the pool – sigh!
    The Hand That First Held Mine? Wonderful book (love all Maggie O’Farrell’s, excepting, perhaps, My Lover’s Lover) and I’ve just ordered Pigeon English on my friend’s recommendation.
    Great post!

    Posted by Jackie Buxton | February 27, 2012, 13:38
    • Thanks for commenting on the post, Jackie. The response both here and elsewhere makes me realise just how lucky I am to be in such a terrific group; it seems quite a few bookgroups end up falling by the wayside. I really hope you find another group that works for you – I know what you mean though about the choice of titles, it’s one thing to discover books you wouldn’t have chosen yourself and another entirely to have to plough through stuff you really don’t enjoy.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | February 28, 2012, 12:57

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