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?