The Eds Discuss: Book Groups

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Love them or loathe them, we’ve all been in one! The editors discuss the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to book groups.

1. What sort of book groups have you been in, if you have?

Simon: I joined my first book group aged 17 – well, it was my Mum’s book group originally – and I was hooked. Besides three years studying English as an undergraduate, where reading books for pleasure was basically impossible, I have been in book groups ever since. For a few years I went to a very large group and a very small group at the same time, but have now narrowed down just to the small group – which, incidentally, also included SNB editor Harriet for a time!

Harriet: I spent years longing to join a book group but never finding one. All that changed a few years ago when I moved to Oxford where, thanks to Simon (see above), I joined two. The very large one he refers to was quite entertaining – part of the fun was switching tables halfway through – but the more enjoyable one was the small one, which met over drinks in the famous Mitre in Oxford High Street. I still miss that one, as I now live in France!

Annabel: I joined one eleven years ago based in Abingdon near Oxford, and it’s still going strong, and indeed, had been going for several years before I joined! It started off as a group of Harwell-linked scientists and friends, and a trio of the original members still come. Now we have a core of around eight men and women spanning ages from 20s to 50s, others come and go – we’d love to recruit a few new members too, (see my Book Group page on my blog.)

Victoria: My first book club was the online Slaves of Golconda, and I was so excited to join it, having wanted to belong to a group for ages. I enjoyed it because I was reading with a bunch of really good blog friends and it was fascinating to find out what they thought of our book choices. Plus we all wrote a review post, so there was no weaseling out of book chat. Then a couple of years ago I finally joined a real life group. I think I’m the kiss of death, though, as both groups slowly ground to a halt not that long after I’d joined them. Oh and I managed one meeting of the book group run by my son’s school several years ago. There was very little spoken about the book, I didn’t know anyone and it was not an experience I was keen to repeat.

2. What are the positives of book groups, in your experience?

S: I just love talking about books with other people! Some book group members have become very close friends, and I think we have a great balance of personal catch-ups and book discussion, leaning towards the latter. Book groups have definitely been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, particularly since the groups I’ve attended have read a nice variety of things.

H: Meeting like-minded people was a great plus for me, and hearing responses to books which often differed wildly from my own. I enjoyed the opportunity to sometimes suggest books I liked myself, to see what others made of them (though this could be a mixed blessing – see below).

A: I’ve made some fantastic close friends and everyone in our group loves reading for pleasure. We have some robust discussions about the books we read, but also lots of socialising so it’s a good balance too. We meet in the pub which takes the pressure off anyone having to host. I particularly like that our group is not women only.

V: Book groups have certainly made me read a lot of novels I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I fondly think of myself as well-read, but of course when it comes to it, I follow what are probably narrow inclinations and interests. There are classics and issue-driven novels I would probably not have got around to without the clubs, and which turned out to be great books and engaging reads.

3. And the negatives?

S: There is a flipside, of course! A phrase that comes up time and time again at book groups is that they ‘give you the opportunity to read something you otherwise wouldn’t read’. To be honest, I’m never going to run out of things to read. I read the books in order to attend the meetings, whereas most people attend the meetings in order to read the books – so I sometimes find myself ploughing through something I don’t particularly want to read.

Then there are the rude or aggressive people, but they’re definitely in the minority. In a slightly larger minority are those people who derail conversations about books to talk about issues; I recall a frustrating discussion about Pat Barker’s Regeneration (at the larger group I no longer attend) where all anybody would talk about was that war was bad. Yes, it is, but let’s talk about the book…

H: I did find it frustrating sometimes when a book I’d loved got rather short shrift, or when people obviously didn’t really get it. So in general – having taught Eng Lit for many years, I sometmes felt a bit dissatisfied with the level of discussion. There’s always going to be a tendency to wander off the topic – of course the social aspect is an important part of the whole experience, so you wouldn’t want to exclude that altogether, but enough is enough sometimes.

A: It is frustrating when everyone else hates the book you picked – The Explorer by James Smythe was one – but I defended my view of it, but then we all give as good as we get if we dislike someone else’s choice – all done in good humour. It irks me a bit when too many people don’t finish the book – our policy is if you come we do do spoilers, but it can be a bit limiting sometimes. At other times, the discussion does spur people on to finish the book. It’s always sad too when new people find us, come for a couple of months, then disappear. But it’s usually the case that they’re not prepared to read such a wide variety of books as we do.

V: Honestly? I have yet to be in any group with any participant who wants to discuss books as much as I do. I always worried that my academic background would get in the way of book club participation, and it does. The online group was the best for literary keenness, but all the other members were American and they were online in the group chat at a time when I was asleep in bed!

4. Have you ever read something brilliant in a book group that, otherwise, you wouldn’t have picked up?

S: The one that stands out for me is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. For some reason it didn’t appeal at all, when chosen, but I really loved its surreal humour and bizarre, brilliant style.

H: I remember absolutely loving Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth — a famous and much admired novel, but not one I’d have thought about picking up if it hadn’t been for the group.

A: There are plenty – but this year I was glad to have had to read The Goldfinch sooner rather than later.

V: Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Andrei Makine’s The Woman Who WaitedDance Night by Dawn Powell and The Small Room by May Sarton. Loved them all.

5. What do you think about televised book clubs (like Richard & Judy, Oprah, and the TV Book Club)?

S: On the one hand, I’m in favour of anything that promotes reading, and a lot of choices are great (particularly in Oprah’s club, where older titles were allowed) – but Richard & Judy’s seemed to promote what I think of as Single Issue Books. So they’d be all about ‘miracle’ babies or domestic abuse or racism or whatever, and not so about people experiencing those things.

H: I’m in favour of them. I think Simon’s too hard on Richard and Judy – some of their choices are excellent – this spring’s list, for example, includes Emma Healey’s prizewinning Elizabeth is Missing, and Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway. I feel fairly sure that televised clubs get lots of people reading, or reading things they might not otherwise try, and that can only be overwhelmingly positive.

A: I don’t think Richard & Judy have the impact they once had these days, but I’m generally in favour, although being a cynic I think there must surely be a bit of a commercial element to the choices picked? I don’t follow the Oprah one, so can’t comment.

V: I used to think Richard & Judy could be quite good with their choices – a range of stories and styles, but usually something with a bit of heft to it and good writing (though I tend to shy away from the issue-based novels, like Simon). I think they promote reading and that’s fantastic. A bit more complicated, though, when like Oprah the club ends up with almost too much power and the books then hoover up a lot of attention and money that might have been spread over a larger number of titles.

6. What do you think is the future for book groups?

S: The internet provides so many scenarios which are akin to the book group of old, so I’m pretty sure that groups to discuss books will flourish. What shape that may take, I don’t know, but I think there is still definitely an appeal for face-to-face discussions over a glass or two of wine. It makes the solitary act of reading a communal activity.

H: I once joined an internet book discussion group and didn’t get on very well with it. Nothing can beat talking face to face and I don’t think the internet will ever replace that, any more than ebooks will replace paper ones. People will always enjoy talking about books, so I can’t see that diminishing any time soon.

A: I love any opportunity to talk books face to face. A comment string on an on-line one just doesn’t have the same social aspect, and Skype is a bit unreliable for more than 3 or 4 people at a time.

V: I’m astonished by how long-lived book groups can be. Both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law belong to groups that have been going strong for over a decade. But then when you think about what’s on offer: a fun reason for friends to get together and talk about something beyond their lives that keeps them feeling current with popular culture – I can’t see the attractions of the book group diminishing any time soon.

7. Which books would you recommend as book group choices?

S: This is quite different from the more general ‘which books do you recommend?’ question, as so many lovely books just wouldn’t generate discussion. Ditto books with a strongly unusual style or particular sense of humour – those debates just end with half the room saying they loved it and half saying they hated it, without any real possibility of communicating reasons for these responses to the other half. So… I’m going to go modern, and pick Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, as I think there’s a lot to say about the way it’s written, and different interpretations of the characters. Oh, and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, as that maddening ending just needs to be discussed!

H: The best choice for a book group is always going to be something that’s open to a variety of different readings, or that leaves questions hanging in the air. If it’s all too obvious, there’s nothing much to say about it. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life would be an interesting choice, or Ali Smith’s How to be Both. And of course Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which seems to have divided critical opinion sharply down the middle.

A: I would agree with both Harriet and Simon. We had some particularly good discussion about All Quiet on the Western Front this year. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford, Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, Stasiland by Anna Funder and True Grit by Charles Portis got us talking too. All have characters and/or situations which are ripe for dissection.

V: I wish I’d suggested Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending to my real life book group (though they would have considered it a bit literary), as I’ve never known a book like it for provoking discussion. The other book that I think is wonderful as it concerns two essentially happy marriages down through the years, but brings up all sorts of very recognisable concerns in relationships is Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety.

8. Are there any books that aren’t suitable for book group choices?

A: I would just say steer clear of celebrity memoirs in general. We read Frankie Boyle’s one – My s*** life so far – and it was utter s***, (but ironically generated a good discussion, as in between reading and discussing it, he managed to offend most of Britain but his bad taste comments!) Also steer clear of books that give people epiphanies – we lost a member over dissing Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

V: I remember a friend of mine being invited to join a book group who were keen to read authors like Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly. She was very reluctant because that sort of book doesn’t invite much discussion, and indeed the club never really did get off the ground. I can imagine that the other end of the scale – the culty authors like Williams Gass and Gaddis would be a hard sell, too.

Do tell us about your book group experiences!

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Our competition to win the Editors’ Picks this issue is about who you’d have in your fantasy book group.  (Comp now closed)