It’s happening across the land: groups of women-and the occasional man-are gathering to discuss the book of the moment. They’re not academics, or even members of the chattering classes they might look more like hunt-ball or charity-bash committees-but looks can be deceptive. Britain is in the grip of a reading revival and the book club is at its heart.
As bookshop shelves groan with the latest celebrity biographies, kitchen tables buzz with topics as diverse as mining (Black Diamonds), life in Kabul (The Kite Runner) or the sexual appetites of the Swedes (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Participants are easy to spot: if someone’s mother, better known for coq au vin than intellectual discourse, corrects you on your pronunciation of netsuke (The Hare with Amber Eyes), you can guarantee that she’s a member of a book club.
Etta Howard’s circle of eight, set up by her friend Nichola Carter-Lewis, was ahead of the Zeitgeist. Their Gloucestershire group began meeting every month 20 years ago. ‘My husband jokes that it’s 80% gossip, 10% eating and 10% the book, but that isn’t true. To begin with, we were a group of young mums trying to keep our brains in order. Our first book was a Joanna Trollope, but, over the years, our choices have become more challenging.’ Mrs Howard admits that the social element is important: ‘The book-club girls are my best friends: when things go well or badly, they are the ones who share it.’
Dismiss these occasions as gossipy, Pinot Grigio-fuelled mothers’ meetings at your peril, because the book-club movement has a genuine influence on sales and the beleaguered publishing industry. ‘We used to divide books into crime, romance, and so on. Now, we say “that’s a reading-group book”,’ explains Susan Lamb, managing director of Orion. ‘Television has driven the book-club movement forward. Of course, they existed before Richard & Judy, but they used to concentrate on very literary books, and what television has done is put more commercial books in front of them. We owe a lot to Amanda Ross [the brains behind Richard & Judy]-she picked out [surprise bestseller] Shadow of the Wind and Kate Mosse.’
Jeremy Trevathan, fiction publisher at Pan Macmillan, agrees. ‘It’s an area of the market that falls between the very literary and the very commercial. Book clubs are a Holy Grail for publishers, as they’re about proper reading by people who like books. During Richard & Judy, we had a halcyon period when their selected books were selling 400,000-500,000 copies and dominating the market. When Richard & Judy stopped, we were anxious that our readership would vanish, but it hasn’t.’ Mr Trevathan cites The Language of Flowers and One Moment, One Morning as examples of works that have taken off thanks to word of mouth. ‘They’re books that are not obvious, yet they combine
a good story with high-quality writing.’
In addition, the rise of the online customer review, such as on Amazon and the discussion forum www.thereadingroom.com, has spawned a whole new generation of amateur reviewers whose views tend to be more heartfelt than those in print and thus more influential. Jill Butler, a member of a book club for more than 10 years, says it encourages you to read books you wouldn’t normally consider. ‘Quite often, people choose wonderful books that might have passed you by completely.’ Harriet Joicey is a member of two: ‘Sometimes both groups choose the same book, but different people bring different angles to the discussion. The book isn’t incidental, but book groups are about belonging, community and clubbability.’
Book clubs can take a variety of forms, from boys’ curry nights to fundraising. Cilla Massey and Ann Monk have been running theirs in London for six years. They invite authors to speak and have raised well over £50,000 for Parkinson’s UK. Mrs Massey believes that the wide range of subjects is the secret of their success. ‘In December, we had Frances Welch discussing her book The Russian Court at Sea. People arrived with their Christmas shopping and were immediately plunged into the Romanov family’s escape from Russia.’ Mrs Massey’s club has a mixture of male and female members, but this isn’t the norm, as most seem to have a single-sex policy. ‘Having men in our club would be very irritating,’ comments Mrs Butler. ‘Men and women like to read different things.’
Micky Blacklock, founder of the Border Boys’ club, tends to agree. Their reading list is heavy on non-fiction: Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys, William Hague’s biography of William Pitt the Younger and Max Hastings’ memoir Editor have all featured. Their group of five always invites a guest and they take it in turns to host the dinner, with an emphasis on ‘good wine’. Again, the social element is key. ‘Our members include two soldiers, a farmer, a stockbroker and an academic, so we all have different experiences to bring to the meetings. The discussion of a book raises good topics and engenders many good conversations.’ So, whether you’re itching to share your thoughts on Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson or Jeremy Paxman, somewhere nearby, there’s a book club for you.
Illustration by Stephanie von Reiswitz
Nigella was never in it for the books. Since her divorce, she has relied on plot updates from the others so that she can impress prospective suitors. She’ll probably Google the synopsis before a meeting and she might read the first and last chapters. Even if she hasn’t, she always has strong opinions based on the dust jacket’s one-line reviews.
Favourite book The Bluffer’s Guide to Literature
Likely to say ‘I didn’t think much of the middle chapters.’
There’s very little about Dickens, Trollope and Shakespeare that Alicia doesn’t know. For her, reading is not an act of pleasure; it’s more a memory game where she tests herself on plotlines, characters’ names and publication dates. She treats these evenings as a mixture between University Challenge and QI and finds analysis far less rewarding than displays of factual knowledge.
Favourite Book The Faerie Queene
Likely to say ‘Let’s name all the characters in Great Expectations.’
The Farmer’s Wife
Jill is always incredibly busy. She usually arrives in her wellies, clutching a motherless piglet or an egg incubator. At home, she tends to just read airport novels in between issues of Farmers Weekly, but she still comes to the book-club meetings. Other-wise, she knows that the only people she will regularly see are the man from Defra and the bovine vet.
Favourite Book Sunday Roast by Clarissa Dickson Wright and Johnny Scott
Likely to say ‘Must dash, we’re lambing.’
The Frustrated Thespian
Although she failed the audition for RADA, Araminta regards books as a vehicle for impromptu sketches and melodramatic flourishes. She particularly relishes death scenes, writhing about on the floor, wailing with exaggerated grimaces. She thinks that she’s much better than Stephen Fry when reading Harry Potter with all the voices.
Favourite Book How To Make It In Hollywood
Likely to say ‘A book! A book! My kitchen for a book!’
Tatiana emits audible sighs whenever there is a group discussion involving Mr Darcy.
She dreams of a more genteel age, when dashing heroes in the Hornblower mould sweep heroines off their feet. She tries to hide her crushing disappointment that the nearest her partner, Dave, has ever come to a romantic evening is a takeaway in front of the football.
Favourite book Anything by Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen
Likely to say ‘Does my bustle look big in this?’
Heathcliff was a bedwetter, Dracula was seeking his mother’s approval and Capt Hook was suffering from post-traumatic stress. These are just some of the theories that Collette comes out with on a weekly basis. She has even found evidence of psychopathic behaviour in her children’s Enid Blyton stories.
Favourite book The Pscychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud
Likely to say ‘You do realise that Manderley is just a phallic symbol?’
The Lone Man
Colin likes his cardigan. He doesn’t feel comfortable, however, when the older women deconstruct the erotic scenes in novels. For the few days before each meeting, he prays that the discussion will be about landscape description and not what the heroine can do with her toes. When talk turns to what book to choose next, Colin is never asked his opinion.
Favourite book P. G. Wodehouse’s Collected Works
Likely to say ‘Um… I don’t think that taking your clothes off while fishing is very sensible.’
The Intellectual Snob
Frederica has a special way of curling her lip if someone so much as mentions Jilly Cooper. The others are put through purgatory by her pretentious references to Proust, Prof Stephen Hawking and Khalil Gibran. She insists that you can only really appreciate the novels of Gabriel García Márquez if you read them in the original Spanish.
Favourite Book Anything that no one else has heard of
Likely to say ‘I dooo like to be challenged.’
Best for book clubs
James Daunt of Waterstones makes some suggestions
Reading Group Classics
When God Was a Rabbit
by Sarah Winman
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Outcast by Sadie Jones
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Highlights for 2012
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
(out this month)
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (out February)
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd (out February)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (out March)
Capital by John Lanchester (out March)
Bringing up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (out May)
The Red House by Mark Haddon (out May)
Gold by Chris Cleave (out June)
Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis (out July)
Dominion by C. J. Sansom (out September)
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