Book Groups

Do you belong to a book group? I”ve been aware of them for years; I have close friends who belong to one, and I was invited to join one a few years ago, but at the time I was doing my PhD, and I felt I had too much other reading to do to be able to indulge in the time to read a new book I hadn’t necessarily chosen to read every month. My son-in-law belongs to a non-fiction book group. A friend belongs to one where they only read prize wining novels — Miles Franklin, Orange Prize, Man Booker etc. I feel this is a bit selective, as many great books never get awarded, and some mediocre ones do. But then, it is very subjective. I could say the same thing about publishing. One reader’s meat is another reader’s poison. Many good books don’t get published, or are rejected again and again until finally they make it, whereas many flawed, boring or bad ones — I can speak as a reviewer for a couple of book pages in newspapers — do get published, some are even acclaimed and widely read. But who am I to say they are bad?

Are there certain standards which are universal, as professors of English, like the esteemed yet notorious F R Leavis, have claimed, creating a canon of great literature? What was regarded as great, for instance, in the early 20th century, may be seen as either dated or unreadable now. How many people read James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, even D H Lawrence? Some of the 19th century writers have lasted better — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Trollope, Dickens … Perhaps the era we have just grown out of is less attractive than one we have no personal memories of.

But back to book groups. Lately I started one in the town I live in, and I’m really enjoying it. We meet once a month at my favourite coffee spot, the Modern Grocer. The owner of this business is a foodie and runs cooking classes from time to time. There is a small side counter  for internet users, and the two long tables in the centre of the shop are littered with gourmet magazines, as well as the daily papers, and there is always a copy of Stephanie Alexander’s The Cooks’ Companion, the Larousse Gastronomique, and sometimes other beautiful books on food there to browse through. The coffee is a blend of locally grown and imported, and there is a delicatessen counter, where you can buy ham, continental sausages, cheese, condiments, olives and pickles, or a gourmet sandwich. On the coffee counter, there’s always a selection of sweet treats, including my favourite, Portuguese tarts, which are a deliciously flaky pastry with a custard filling and a lemony flavour.

Our group began with five women, some of whom know each other; our common link is Jenny, who works at the Grocer’s 2 or 3 days a week. One of the group says she knows a man who may like to join, and today, when I was in there for a coffee, a young woman who works there as a barista asked if she could come along to the next meeting. At our first meeting, we just chatted and got to know each other, and discussed different ways we could choose our books. We decided on themes or genres. So the next meeting we each talked about a book or books we liked on the theme of childhood — fiction or memoirs.  We talked about Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger, Breath by Tim Winton, Boy by Roald Dahl, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thomson, Popeye Never Told You by Rodney Hall, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and other less well known ones. Next meeting, we are talking about books for children. I’ve no idea yet what I’ll bring along, as I haven’t had time to think about it, and I haven’t found the children’s books I had kept since I made my last house move.  I’m thinking of Beatrix Potter, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The latter was an important book in my childhood, and Beatrix Potter’s books were among my favourites for reading to my children when they were little. But then, there’s Blinky Bill, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, The Water Babies, Ginger Meggs, Arthur Ransome’s books, Enid Blyton, the Anne of Avonlea series, the Just So stories, the William  series, Milly Molly Mandy  … I could go on forever. What are your memories of books from your childhood, or ones you loved reading to your children, ones you revisit, perhaps, with your grandchildren?

At each meeting, we share our enthusiasms and our disappointments, lend each other books, and go away feeling inspired and enriched.

Reading is a solitary occupation in one sense;  you read alone, but in doing so, you enter “a more real world than the real world you inhabit”, as A S Byatt put it. It’s lovely to have a friend or companion to share your pleasures with. Being a member of a book group is a way of bringing readerly people together, breaking the isolation, sharing new ideas, and swapping books.

I’d love to hear: do you belong to a book group? If so, how do you share together? Would you like to start one?

What childhood books do you treasure, what did you read, what do you read to your children or grandchildren?



Filed under book groups

10 responses to “Book Groups

  1. I don’t belong to a book club and I’m not sure it’s something I would enjoy. Too many things in life have targets.

    I was never much of a reader as a child. My parents never read fiction and although they never actively discouraged me they weren’t exactly a shining example either. I did have books as a kid and they did read to me, mainly Enid Blytons and my favourite of all was Brer Rabbit so much so that before my daughter was born I made sure she had the complete set in fact by the time she was born she had 100 books sitting waiting for her and I’m pleased to say things went according to plan and she did turn into a voracious reader or at least until she started her university degree she was; that kind of put the kibosh on that for a few years which is a shame because I keep seeing books I want to buy her but I know she has no time to read them.

  2. Christina Houen

    HI Jim. It sounds as though you made up for not being much of a reader when you were a child, and lavished lots of books on your daughter.
    My son didn’t read much when he was young. I read to him until he was about 12, and then I decided he should read for himself. I used to think he’d never be much of a reader, but when he was a young adult, he became very interested in martial arts, and that was the start of his reading for joy and learning. He has developed enormously in his self-expression, in writing and in speaking, and I think it has a lot to do with his reading. He educates himself about the things he is interested in, and I think that is the best kind of reading. As you say, too many things in life have targets. So to do something just because we love it, it gives us pleasure, is the best.

  3. I don’t belong to a book group either, Christina and maybe one day once my thesis is out the door I might. As for childhood books, my clearest memory is of a book called The Happy Mariners. After many years of searching I finally found a copy. It’s one of my most treasured books, about four children, one whose name happens to be Elizabeth, two brothers, two sisters and they manage to convert an old ship in a bottle into a real ship and go in search of pirate treasure. I have an almost visceral response to thinking about this book. I wish I could recapture the joy of first reading it, immersing myself in the children’s world, becoming that Elizabeth. Nothing compares.

    Thanks for a terrific post, Christina. I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying your book group. It sounds like such a ‘settled’ thing to do, and not your usual nomadic pace.

    • Christina Houen

      Hello Elisabeth

      Lovely to hear from you. Perhaps we could have an e-book group! But I think a 3-dimensional one is more fun. It can be very fluid and flexible. Another friend of mine has made lifelong friends through her group.

      I hadn’t heard of The Happy Mariners. It sounds fun. Since writing this post I’ve remembered other books I loved as a child, like the A A Milne books and J M Barrie’s books, and The Wind in the Willows. There is a huge world of children’s books out there, but some of these classics are perennial. And yes, if only we could become our childhood selves again, if only in short visits; we need a Tardis, but there are a few things I would want to change in my childhood world if I revisited it.

      I’m trying to become more settled, but it still feels ‘as if’.

  4. I belong to a book club of 11 women. Each January is our planning meeting. We each bring one book recommendation and then have a drawing to determine who is responsible for which of the remaining eleven months. If it’s your month, all read your book and you have the meeting in your house. Some books inspire great conversation and others less so. As far as children’s books, I still cherish my memories of reading Heidi and the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. When my boys were growing, I loved reading the Indian in the Cupboard series with them.

    • Christina Houen

      Hello, nice to hear from you. That sounds like the regular plan most book groups I’ve heard of follow. Ours is more informal, and it works well too.

      I remember Heidi, haven’t read the Wilder series or the Indian in the Cupboard. Must look for them.


  5. Oh, I can’t resist this … I have been in a book group since 1988. We have been maintaining a blog since late 2008. You are welcome to look at it – Minerva Reads – if you want to get a sense of what we read. We are about 11 at present and still have several of our original members. We started out of a playgroup/babysitting club when we realised we liked to read and talk about what we read. We started off with a strong focus on Australian women writers but are more diverse now. We mostly read fiction. It is my top priority activity and I move heaven and earth re my other arrangements NOT to miss it.

    As for your other question, my experience is that a goodly number of people do read Joyce, Woolf, et al – litbloggers have Ulysses readathons; online bookgroups (there are several Yahoo groups) I’ve been involved in have done Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner; my reading group has done Woolf, and later people like Iris Murdoch. These are all keen readers – not academics.

    And then children’s books – Heidi, Pollyanna, Seven little Australians, Little women, the Billabong books, school stories (Our girl of the chalet is one series that comes to mind), and Noel Streatfield’s ballet stories. To name a few from those mid to late primary years.

    • Christina Houen

      Hi, good to see you here. I will certainly look at Minerva Reads tomorrow. I’ve been a selfish reader, am not much of a groupie, probably because of my very isolated childhood. But I feel the need to reach out now, and the internet is one great way of doing it.

      I love Iris Murdoch! and other of those classic modern writers. My comment was more about the general reader, and it seems there are so many writers emerging every year, there is scarcely time to revisit, if you want to keep up. I don’t try to keep up, and I often go back to my favourite authors and re-read them

      All the children’s books you name were loved by me, though I missed out mostly on school stories and Streatfied. But there was Enid Blyton!

      • There certainly was Enid Blyton and I read her too (except I never did read those Faraway tree and Wishing chair ones — until I was given some for my kids. I thought they were terrible and couldn’t read them to the kids).

        I do reread a bit too … particularly Jane Austen (as I’m a member of a Jane Austen group too – an offshoot of the Jane Austen Society of Australia).

        The Minerva Reads Past Schedules page is incomplete – I work on it when I can – but it will give you an idea.

  6. Funnily enough, my son, who has grown into a very macho guy (with a very soft centre) adored the Faraway tree and Wishing chair books, which I had never read before, and I had to re-read them to him many times. He didn’t get into the Famous Five or whatever they were called. And nowadays, there’s Harry Potter, though I’m not sure if the readership is as huge as it was when she was still writing the series.

    I just love Jane Austen, have a set I won as a school prize, and every now and then I re-read them. The other set I have re-read several times is The Lord of the Rings. I find, whenever my life feels unsettled and uncertain, that this tale of the heroism of humble people/beings gives me courage and a measure of serenity.

    And when I want tragedy, I return to Anna Karenina.

    I”ve promised myself that one day I will re-read all of Shakespeare, but the collected edition is heavy and not exactly a comfortable bedfellow. I guess some would say I should get a Kindle, but I resist that.

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