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Old 15th Feb 2005, 10:16   #1
Wavid
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Default Book Groups

This from, yes, you guessed it, The Guardian. I, and I am sure other Palimpsesters, would be interested to know of anyone's experiences with Book Groups, other than our own, of course.

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Why the book club is more than a fad

It is a phenomenon that has become a near ubiquitous part of bourgeois life - and it is about far more than just reading

Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent
Saturday February 12, 2005


The hummus and camembert having been consumed, the book club is ready to begin.

In a dining room in Hackney, east London, is gathered a group of three men and five women in their 30s and 40s. Among them are a headteacher, a gardener, a fitness trainer and a writer. They have been meeting in each others' homes to talk books since 2001; soon they will tackle their 50th.

This month it is an airport page-turner - Kathy Reichs's Death Du Jour. Last time it was Catcher in the Rye, the month before, a Gore Vidal.

A complicated game of offensive and defensive social moves ensue. Initially dismissed by all but the book's proposer, "poor Kathy" is, in the end, partly rehabilitated, and the threat of a Maoist-style denunciation recedes.

Conversation turns to the next book. Paul Theroux? Something on cricket, or sex? Finally Paolo Coehlo's Veronika Decides To Die is agreed upon.

This kind of forceful yet friendly trading of literary passions is now happening every day in homes, pubs, libraries and workplaces up and down the country.

It is hard to know precisely how many book clubs there are, because so many of them are informal networks. But Professor Jenny Hartley, author of The Reading Groups Book, thinks there could be as many as 50,000.

What is clear is that the book club is now a near-ubiquitous feature of bourgeois life. If you are not in one, you will know someone who is.

There are reading groups devoted to football, horror, and crime books. There groups in prisons, groups for men, groups who dress up in clothing appropriate to the book, groups who cook for each other, lesbian groups and radical groups.

Richard and Judy front a Channel 4 club that famously makes sales of featured books rocket. And this week, the BBC announced a shortlist of titles for its forthcoming rival show, Page Turners.

So what is behind this cultural phenomenon?

It is clear that reading groups are about more than reading. James, 32, who answered an ad in a London supermarket, said: "Part of me thought it was a singles night - part of me hoped it was."

The club "is a convenient way of broadening what I read", though the book might be "a prompt for conversation - we don't talk much about [literary] technique".

The group is "mostly women, and definitely singles. When someone asked if it was a problem to meet on Valentine's day, everyone looked at the floor."

According to Professor Mark Currie, of Anglia Polytechnic University, book clubs, with their articulations of enthusiasms, are partly about "trait connotation". He said: "It's like wearing a particular shirt: passion for certain books indicates lots of things about your moral character that might be favourable."

The discourse at reading groups does not often have much in common with the language of scholarship. Prof Currie and a fellow English literature don were once barred from a book club lest they ruin the fun with talk of structuralism and the like.

For others, that expulsion might represent a happy revolution. According to Professor John Sutherland, of London University: "People are reclaiming the right to read from pointy-headed academics".

Reading groups have been around for a long time. But there is clearly something about our current social and cultural circumstances that has made this book club explosion happen now.

It is partly, perhaps, about the desire to forge personal links in a fractured world. As James said: "I don't know that many people where I live." It is also partly to do with people feeling the need to actively make the time to read: book clubbers talk of being readers anyway, but liking the extra incentive.

The cheapness of paperbacks now means the book club is "cheap for a night out compared with the cinema and theatre," according to Prof Hartley.

The sheer number of titles available also means that reader groups, with their word-of-mouth recommendations, perform an important navigational role. As Prof Sutherland said: "For the first time ever we have a superfluity of books. We need directional aids." Andrew Franklin, of Pro file Books, links the rise of book clubs to the decline in public libraries. "It is a sort of privatisation of those functions." That said, libraries have seen something of a renaissance via book clubs - frequently via the efforts of individual librarians rather than the institution.

According to Tom Palmer, who works on a joint libraries-publishers project called Reading Partners, innumerable groups ("hundreds in Yorkshire") have sprung up, librarians "overcoming a lot of hurdles that councils put in their way."

Prof Hartley points out the particular quality of reading groups is that they are "very good at morphing into whatever shape people want them to", from dating circles to supper clubs to an excuse to get a babysitter and talk like a grown-up. "Five years ago I thought [the phenomenon] had peaked. But it has got a lot of life in it yet. It's contagious."
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Old 15th Feb 2005, 10:21   #2
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I started my group Sept 03 and seven of us meet once a month (or six weeks if it's a long book), over coffee or wine chez Col. Sometimes we go to the cinema, sometimes we add on extra tasks like writing a poem or mini-saga.
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Old 15th Feb 2005, 17:08   #3
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To be honest, the bookcrossing meetups in London fulfilled pretty much the same function, part social club, part escapism, part opportunity to talk about a minority interest, part opportunity to try out new stuff without shame or fear. Could be describing a swingers' club or a bondage group, or for that matter Palimpsest.
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Old 15th Feb 2005, 18:35   #4
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Quote:
Prof Currie and a fellow English literature don were once barred from a book club lest they ruin the fun with talk of structuralism and the like.
But that takes all the fun out of it. :wink:
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Old 16th Feb 2005, 21:06   #5
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It could have been worse. Someone might have let in a poststructuralist.

Grrr....lemme at 'em.......


oh! mark currie. lol. had classes with him. he's a prof now is he? well, well.
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Old 16th Feb 2005, 21:57   #6
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Mark "Blue Peter" Curry??
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Old 21st Jun 2007, 17:23   #7
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Default Re: Book Groups

I've entered my offline book group in the Orange/Penguin Book Group competition: not that we particularly would relish a reading group session with an author (though the trip to London would be cool), but winning the books would be okay. One of my group wrote a good "why we enjoy our group" to contribute to the entry.
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Old 21st Jun 2007, 19:46   #8
Beth
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Default Re: Book Groups

My offline group will meet at my house Sunday afternoon. They've all read The Kite Runner, but a Stewart review spared me from it . It's a rather large lunch and we take turns visiting each other's homes. The hostess prepares the main course while the others bring bread, salad, dessert, etc. Col, I wish there were a comparable Penguin prize here. The group has been going strong since summer of 2001 and there are two academics in the group who can expound forever! I'm the youngest of the lot by several years, so our perspectives are sometimes different.
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Old 22nd Jun 2007, 0:02   #9
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Beth, I want to join your book group.
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Old 22nd Jun 2007, 1:32   #10
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Default Re: Book Groups

I wish you could, Kim. I had to pester them a bit to let me in as I didn't know any of them but heard of them from an acquaintance. They are, without exception, far better read than I and far better at cooking. Older women have so much wisdom and experience. But, I do have to keep giving them directions to get here every time because they forget! You come on over, young lady. It's the little house with...
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