We were nothing like the quirky characters in the BBC TV series The Book Group, but we did meet every month or two to discuss a book we’d all planned to read. The key difference with the TV show was that we weren’t all sleeping together. The main similarity was that often a whole night would pass with us barely mentioning the book of the month.
Back in 2004, I was invited along to a group by my then-housemate and my overactive sense of responsibility quickly made me one of the “reliables”, the three or four who would turn up every time and have read the book without fail. The rest of the group was made up of semi-regulars who mostly just wanted to hang out for a beer. It was a great group.
If you’ve ever been a member of a book group, you will likely have encountered the same issues that we did. How do you keep everyone interested? How do you pick a book that everyone wants to read? Do you bother rescheduling for people who never turn up anyway?
Picking books was definitely the biggest challenge. The two men in the group weren’t so keen on some of the more Oprah’s Book Club-type selections. No one was especially keen on books over 400 pages long—who has time? Finding enough copies for everyone was always a challenge, especially for anything left-of-centre.
There’s something to be said for book-choice-by-committee, though. That group and its democratic selection process were responsible for me reading a dozen books that I never would have picked up otherwise. Sometimes this only confirmed my initial impression of the book (My Sister’s Keeper was compulsive but very superficial) and other times it blew my preconceptions away.
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton was the biggest surprise. It’s a phenomenally popular book and one of the biggest landmarks in recent Australian fiction. For some reason, I figured it would be dull and very middle-of-the-road. Instead, it was engaging and beautifully told. Rather than relying on the worn clichés of Australiana, it dug deep into the world of post-war Perth and turned up all sorts of unique characters and situations.
Being in a book group and reviewing books are similar in a few ways. Firstly, you have to read to a deadline and somehow fit a book in with all your normal activities. The deadlines for our group weren’t too strict—every meeting was delayed at least two weeks—but once you factored in sourcing a copy and the rest of modern life, it could be difficult.
The other similarity is being forced to verbalise your opinion on a book. Once we’ve finished with the rigours of High School English Lit, most of us are more than happy to just enjoy a book and leave any analysing to our subconscious. But talking about a book in a group takes you away from vague feelings and impressions and requires you to put boundaries around those feelings. Once you’ve expressed an opinion out loud, it feels more fixed but also more dubious.
This is a mixed blessing. Some books open up under that kind of analysis and you find yourself loving them in a deeper way. Other times you realise that your positive feelings evaporate once they’re aired, especially when you have to defend them. My good feelings regarding Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised didn’t survive the questioning.
It doesn’t matter, really. Some books will change your life, others will amuse you briefly and others will let you down. But talking about a book over a beer in warm pub on a frosty winter with good people, well it’s one of life’s little pleasures.