I recently left a book club that I had loved attending for a good handful of years. A club full of bright, beautiful women in the middle of what will probably be the busiest phase of their lives. The club had shifted focus as people moved in and out of it and as members’ lives changed. I left because I felt it had stopped being book-focused in any real way with people expressing increasing disinterest – both overtly and covertly – not so much in books in general, but in the ones we had chosen to read and discuss in particular.
Michelle, who initiated the club and advertised it on Gumtree, originally proposed we would read books from the ‘1001 books to read before you die’ list, or rather lists as there are a number of versions. Other members were working their way through the 100 books listed by The Guardian so we added this to the allowable book selections and took it in turn to propose either a book selection or, more commonly, to present a shortlist to the group who then helped to make the final decision. In my opinion this was the most successful phase of the book club. Later, craving some more contemporary reads, a better geographical spread and a broader variety of selections by female authors, we all but abandoned this list for a loose, and not always adhered to guideline encompassing any book that had received an award.
But I don’t think the actual book selections are what have let us down as much as our level of commitment to reading them and properly discussing them. Apparently this is not uncommon. The brochure from the Reading Contemporary Book Club suggests this is the main reason people join, claiming that their group’s primary focus is on books and that the social aspect is secondary. And so, my plan is to try joining it this year to see if I can regain the excitement I felt about the book club when it first started.
If I am honest I would actually prefer it was a “Classics” book club. I read and buy contemporary fiction anyway, as well as consuming many literary reviews, podcasts and online articles and attending events and festivals. Part of the appeal, to me, of the 1001 Book Club, in its first form, was the way it helped me to build up my knowledge of the canon. As partial and as problematic as the idea of the canon is, the books that form it are strange and wonderful and when reading ten to twelve of them a year they begin to connect and reflect each other in interesting ways.
So thank you, Michelle and to everyone who has formed part of the group over the years. I never thought I’d be a book club type of person but at its best the group taught me about myself, about the books and about the world. Some nights it was thrilling: a true exploration of the literary as well as the cultural. Here’s hoping I can find some glimmer of that early experience in my next book club.
I’ll keep you posted.