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