I’ve been going to my book group for nearly 10 years, so it was quite a big decision when I told them last week that I was going to leave. There was no big reason for leaving, just that I’m about to start studying again and have lots to read for work and, well, if I’m honest, the last book finally put me off- I really couldn’t bring myself to read about The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs when I have my own pile to contemplate (no disrespect to the novel which may be great and I did try honestly but couldn’t get past page 5). On the whole I enjoyed book group- I’m not going to launch into a tirade against book groups in general. My book group was friendly, not too intimidating and relaxed (although I have heard of others which are not). At a time when I didn’t get out much with small children, the monthly meeting was very welcome and helped me get to know people in a new area. I’ve always read books but I suspect like lots of people there have been times when I’ve fallen into old habits and found it hard to select new books or step out of a ‘book comfort zone’. Book group, with its new book every month provided a useful introduction to a different and changing set of reading materials.
So I planned to write a sort of celebratory homage to the many wonderful books my reading group introduced me to, and explain how I read things I wouldn’t otherwise have read etc etc. Except here is the thing- when I started to make a list of them for this blog I realised how few I could remember in any useful detail. All those books, all those months and it’s all a bit of a blur. I can remember, for example, that we read Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and A Short History of Tractors but we must have read them around the same time because the plots of the two seem to have formed a hideous amalgam of fishing and farming in my head. (Perhaps I should explain, we borrowed our books from the library, so I didn’t have my own copies readily available to jolt my memory).
Yet books I have read not on the book group list have, by and large, remained clear in my mind, so it’s not just my failing memory. Maybe that is because the books I chose for myself often had a resonance or meaning for me which gave me a purpose for reading them and gave them, in turn, a place to connect to in my mind. Moreover, being told to read a book is often a reason for suddenly finding yourself not wanting to read it. I found Life of Pi for example quite tedious in the book group context, but in another I may well have enjoyed it.
Does it make the experience of a book better and deeper when you have discussed and shared it with others? Occasionally our discussions would be interesting and lively (I seem to remember that The Lovely Bones and The Swan Thieves prompted heated debate) but quite often I felt as if we were going through the motions before moving on to the snacks and wine. Does a book always need to be discussed? Take for example State of Wonder which I read and enjoyed and thought was well written but didn’t have anything really to say about it. And it’s hard to know which novels will inspire good discussions- especially when not everyone in the group wants to read tried and tested classics.
Then there was the problem of recommending something for the group to read. I like lots of books and love quite a few but anything I have suggested or recommended has usually turned out to be unpopular. I suppose I should be more robust about this but, again, if I’m honest, it hurts a bit and it’s hard not to take personally. If someone says a book you like is pretentious, don’t you feel that you too, are similarly culpable? Sometimes it feels better and safer to think of the world inside a book you have enjoyed as existing solely for yourself, private and unexplored by anyone else.
So maybe all of this just means I need to move on from book groups and communal reading at least for a while. Maybe in the end I need the simpler relationship of reader and book, in which even the author has a peripheral place. As Virginia Woolf said, ‘the pusuit of reading is carried on by private people’.