Reading groups

Best when you do it together

In a windowless studio at Broadcasting House, on Portland Place, William Boyd sits encircled by 25 readers of his novel, Brazzaville Beach, ready to answer comments and questions on Radio Four’s Book Club.

Before the recording begins, the show’s presenter, James Naughtie, briefly removes his headphones to give us some advice: ‘Try to avoid sounding as though you’re studying for a PhD,’ he cautions. ‘The point of Book Club is to ask questions that the listeners will want to hear answered.’ Then Naughtie puts back his ‘cans’, introduces Boyd and today’s novel and poses a few questions of his own. After five minutes, he invites comments from the rest of us. Initially, these are concerned with the book’s big themes: war, maths and chimpanzees. Then a girl to my right, from Manchester, tentatively puts forward a theory about myths and science. Another, one of a contingent from Walsall, asks if Boyd sought advice from women when writing a rape scene (he didn’t). Naughtie follows up by asking women in the group if Boyd has done a convincing job with his woman’s narrative; a collective murmur of assent induces Boyd to smile shyly.

By comparison with the women, men in the group tend to sound like smart-alecs. One, who has white hair, puts forward a question which included the word ‘deity’, provoking a couple of elderly women to raise eyebrows and exchange humorous glances. A man from Essex attempts to catch out Boyd by observing that Brazzaville, lying inland, ‘can’t have a beach’. My own question, I confess, is calculated to make clear that I am already familiar with much of Boyd’s oeuvre.

Naughtie’s programme is not entirely original. Its model is the Book Club launched in September 96 by the American Oprah Winfrey, on her daytime TV show. ‘When I did not have friends, I had books,’ she said at the time. ‘I want to get the whole country reading again. [Applause.] This is what we are going to do. You all have to go and buy the book. We will have the author to dinner, with people in this audience. And you can also write, and we will meet back here in a month and talk about the book. Isn’t that exciting? [Applause.] I love it. It’s the most fun I have had, lately.’

The following month, Oprah recommended to millions of viewers a novel called Song of Solomon, and later showed highlights of the four-hour dinner that had taken place at her own home. ‘I can’t tell you how much that night meant to me. It was a life-changing night for us all.’ The author, standing beside her, looked gratified but also bemused: ‘I thought it would be lovely,’ said Toni Morrison graciously. ‘It turned out to be interesting – and then even better. Something incredible happened among us.’

More to the point, something happened among the viewers. On the day of that broadcast, branches of the American bookseller Barnes & Noble sold 16,070 copies of the 19-year-old novel. Over the weeks that followed, they sold hundreds of thousands more. Since then, Oprah has hosted many more instalments of Oprah’s Book Club, as it is officially styled. Each time, her enthusiasm for books has exerted a consistently powerful influence, causing her audience to rush out and consume at once the country’s entire stock of that month’s chosen novel. First-timers and Nobel laureates alike have shot to the top of the bestseller charts after Oprah gave the nod to their work.

But even Oprah can’t claim to have invented reading groups. They’ve been around for some years, though nobody really knows how they started. ‘I read that it was in South Africa – something to do with ordering books in bulk from overseas,’ says Dr Jenny Hartley, one of the few British academics to have taken an interest in a phenomenon that remains rare outside circles of middle-class, middle-aged women. ‘But it’s also big in the US – there’s that American thing about self-improvement. And it has a strong tradition in Australia.’

Dr Hartley, who teaches English literature to undergraduates at Roehampton Institute, is conducting a major investigation into reading groups. Together with a colleague in Oxford, she’s sent questionnaires to every group she can find. These include a Friendly Reading Society in Bristol founded more than 200 years ago, a Prison Libraries Group, an Asian Women’s Reading Group in Oldham, a couple of German groups, and a group which discusses novels on telephone-conference calls at 6.30pm on the first Saturday in the month. Responses to her survey show just how seriously people take reading groups. One woman sent Dr Hartley a copy of the list she always carries in her handbag, showing every book her group has read since the middle of the 1980s. Scanning the list, I notice several authors whose works I might be uncomfortable leaving around at home in case surprise visitors should spy them and damn me as low-brow. Then I spot a less common name, an Albanian novelist who was recommended to me recently when I interviewed a former student revolutionary-turned-writer-and-TV producer. I have yet to attempt the novels of Ismail Kadare myself, but his appearance on the list increases considerably my respect for the woman with the handbag.

The rise of the reading group could hardly come at a more auspicious time, since the British government, pursuant to its election manifesto, happens to have designated this the National Year of Reading. With as much as eight per cent of the adult population functionally illiterate, the National Year of Reading is primarily intended to help people learn to read prescriptions at the chemist, or small print on bank documents. Businesses and the media have willingly lent assistance: McDonalds released members of its staff from serving up burgers to visit schools, where it is thought their enthusiasm for reading will not strike pupils as stuffy and too grown-up; and writers on the TV soap, Brookside, devised a storyline about a woman who can’t take a promotion because she can’t read.

The woman in charge of the National Year of Reading, the former children’s publisher Liz Attenborough, is also keen to instill enthusiasm for reading generally. And that’s where reading groups come in. Libraries, publishers and booksellers alike have been delighted by the development – the last two for the obvious reason that reading groups mean bulk sales. Waterstones somehow persuaded the Arts Council of England to fund its research into the phenomenon. And Transworld, like a couple of other major publishers, has issued a series of reading guides relating to its own titles. Each guide includes a summary of the book, notes about the author, recommendations for further reading (including, honourably enough, books published by rivals), and ‘Suggested topics for discussion’, such as these:

‘When Alice is in jail, she is subject to a violent beating at the hands of another inmate. How do you think Hamilton handles the theme of violence, and is this particular act of savagery gratuitous?’ (A Map of the World)

‘The stepmother myth is a powerful one in Western literature and culture. How far do you think our fear of stepmothers stems from our need to see our true mothers in a perfect light?’ (Other People’s Children)

‘Is the term ‘lesbian novel’ in itself a pejorative one, or is it a positive thing?’ (Crocodile Soup)

I’m put in mind of university, where these might – just possibly – have come up as essay titles. But I’m not sure how appropriate they are to reading groups; and Dr Hartley seems to agree. Reading group discussion, she says, is almost always sparkier, more self-starting than that of her students. ‘Getting students to read, I have to be systematic. I’m the leader. I will pose the questions, and say, “Let’s look at page 300”. But nobody does that in reading groups. I’ve been surprised by how unstructured they can be.’

Like Oprah, and the people at Transworld, I enjoy recommending books. Some years ago, I lent Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to a friend who later told me it had moved him to tears on London Underground. At the time, this seemed remarkable, but now I know that everybody cries on the Tube reading Corelli. Another book I have thrust upon friends was Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! And Tibor Fischer’s first novel, Under the Frog, impressed me so much that I couldn’t stop raving about it to a Hungarian man who came to fix my boiler (he insisted on buying my own dog-eared copy, and stowed it inside his toolbox in case I had second thoughts about the sale, which I did). More recently I have told people they should set aside a few months to read Anthony Powell’s sequence, A Dance To The Music Of Time, but I no longer lend out my own copies, because nobody ever returns them. I’ve mildly recommended plenty of other books too – though in truth it can be a matter of years before I encounter a book which I simply must force people to read. Most books aren’t that good. If I were to join a book club, I wondered, how long would it take before I started recommending books that were less than brilliant?

And what about the discussions? How would I cope with those? A recent article in Harpers & Queen quoted one reading group member explaining that meetings provided ‘a brilliant excuse for some fabulous girl talk… a quick way of stripping down to your emotional undies’. This, I confess, set alarm bells ringing: I wasn’t sure that I could fit in. But nor did I believe the implication that reading groups amounted to little more than gossip-shops. As Dr Hartley warned me: ‘When you call something “gossip”, you denigrate it. People in reading groups want to discuss the issues that arise in books. Not just obvious issues like child abuse, or war – as in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Birdsong but also comparative versions of India. It’s about acquiring cultural capital. In consumer capitalism, you want a Porsche on the drive; reading groups are about wanting to understand Louis de Bernieres.’

Wondering what kind of cultural capital I could get my own hands on, I began to make enquiries. I asked friends if they knew of any reading groups. Following up their leads, I called a couple of women I’d met briefly, years ago, and asked if I might join their reading groups. They promised to call back, but didn’t. I tried the local bookshop and libraries. No, said the staff, who seemed to regard me with suspicion, as if I had asked for the telephone number of a massage parlour. Then out of the blue, I received three offers at once.

That was a year ago. Over the past 12 months, the reading groups to which I belong – including the one-off at Broadcasting House – have chosen 22 books. Of those, there were a couple I didn’t even start. (The longest was Les Miserables, which runs to 1,230 pages in the Penguin translation: too much. I bought instead an abridged ‘audio book’ on four cassettes, and after failing to get more than half-way through those – the reading was too melodramatic for me, and abridging the story had served to highlight several improbable plot twists – I watched a film version in Leicester Square, sitting in the dark taking notes about the plot. Only when the film ended did I buy the book, scan the introduction and carefully bend the spine, at 50-page intervals, to make it look well used.) Three others I had read previously. Of a further ten, I consumed on average a fifth; to be precise, 579 pages out of a grand total of 2,838. Naturally I am embarrassed by this apparent laziness. I can only point out in my defence that I’m a slow reader, and in the course of the year I have read – not infrequently to the end – many other novels and books of non-fiction either for work (book reviews) or for pleasure.

But in general I tried hard to keep up, and did read seven of the chosen works to the finish. There’s a strong chance I would never have looked at some of them if I hadn’t belonged to a reading group. The ones I have in mind are a clutch of ‘women’s’ books, which – though I would never, I like to think, have dismissed them consciously as ‘not for me’ – I would probably have failed to notice altogether, in bookshops, as if they were actually invisible. As it happens, one of those, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, was among the most enjoyable novels I read all year. (I haven’t finished it yet – I’m only half-way through – but I firmly intend to do so, and I’ve already recommended it to friends.)

Still more memorable, though not at all enjoyable, was a work of non-fiction. Before We Say Goodbye is a short account of a woman’s death from cancer. I put off reading it till the morning of the day we were due to meet. The first few chapters I considered to be full of trivia – stuff about shopping, or gossipy email chatter between the dying woman, Ruth Picardie, and her friends. But gradually I was won round. Trivia, I realised, is the stuff of our lives. Without first reading these inconsequential exchanges, it would be impossible for the reader to imagine Picardie as a real woman who led a real life. And without that, the painful impact of the goodbye letters she wrote to her two-year-old twins, shortly before dying, would lose much of its force.

That afternoon, on finishing the book, I ached with the vivid awareness of what had previously been just a statement of the obvious: even a woman who is occasionally less than serious or admirable does not deserve to die of cancer. As I drove to the meeting, I started to project myself into the position of Picardie’s husband. The evening was warm, so I lowered the windows, and even at 60 mph, on the elevated motorway, I allowed the air to whip around my head. In the normal course of things, I might have listened to the radio, but not today. I was too preoccupied. I couldn’t even concentrate on the traffic – my eyes kept drifting towards the orange sunset, and filling with tears. I kept to the slow lane.

By the end of the Westway, at Shepherd’s Bush, I had whipped myself to a pitch of entirely undeserved self-pity. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I might start crying in the reading group, surrounded by all those women. Either that, or I would have to avoid talking honestly about the book, which would be a waste of time. The lights turned green. The car in front began to move off. Engaging first gear, I followed, but my gaze drifted back towards the sunset – and crash!

I got out, and so did the other driver. I apologised, agreed it was entirely my fault. He stared at me as though I was mad – and it’s possible, given the strength of my response to Ruth Picardie’s book, that I did look deranged. The cars seemed to be OK, but we exchanged numbers just in case. Now, I had a real reason to feel sorry for myself. I resolved to miss the reading group altogether. I’d come so far – I was only a few hundred yards from Liz’s house – but I drove instead to my parents’. ‘I spent the whole day reading this bloody miserable book,’ I told them, ‘and it made me so depressed I crashed the car.’ Tears ran down my nose. ‘Now I can’t even face the reading group – so I’ve read it for nothing.’

The following day, I wrote by email to apologise for my absence. ‘How did it go?’ I asked, fully expecting to hear that everybody else too had broken down sobbing. But no. ‘I’m sorry to hear about your accident,’ came the response, written in much the same casual writing style as the messages that had irritated me in the book. ‘I assumed you must have changed your mind, or something had come up. I try not to be a worrier…

Anyway, down to the “lit crit” stuff [Liz continued]. My first thought is what an odd genre the book is, it’s become quite the thing for journos with cancer to “reveal all” in public (have you seen the John Diamond columns in The Times?). Was the book really a book? Was it a momento?

At times I found myself more interested in the “girly” gossip and her obsession with clothes, make-up and chocolate consumption than what was happening to her life… I felt some of the jolliness of the emails was a bit phoney and forced…

I think finally it was a good book / account / whatever because it does make you think of mortality and issues one would rather not think about. So what are your thoughts? Trust mine were not too drivelly.

Cultural capital? This, surely, is the real thing. Then there was the meeting at which I found myself discussing erotic literature. Over bowls of pistachios, carrots, hummus and olives, a woman called Alice explained that she had selected Stoner McTavish, by Sarah Dreher, ‘because it was about a lesbian’. Another woman, new to the group, approved of that choice but with serious misgivings: ‘In the final scene,’ Maggie said, ‘when Stoner finally gets off with the straight woman, it’s awfully dry and unerotic. When I was reading it I was embarrassed because I thought if straight people read this to find out what lesbian love is all about they will think, “Oh, is that all? Is that what they do?” and they’ll be terribly disappointed.’ As conversations go, this was terribly exciting. Perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life, but the fact is that I’d never previously discussed lesbianism after barely an hour’s acquaintance with lesbian interlocutors. And these two were not only lesbian but also plainly intelligent and good-humoured.

Later Sasha, the group’s founder, admitted this was the first time they’d read books with ‘rude’ bits. She pulled from her bookshelf something given to her by an ex-boyfriend. It was an ‘erotic book for women’, part of a series. ‘Maybe we should read one of these next time,’ she said, passing it round. In the back pages, I found a checklist asking readers to describe the ideal characteristics for heroes and heroines, and another asking whether passages describing sex in the present book amounted to ‘too much’, ‘too little’ or ‘about enough’. Where other books might have an epigraph, this one carried a message about practicing safe-sex. While everybody laughed and joked, I made a mental note to be absent if Sasha should choose this kind of book next month. Lesbian novels were one thing, but soft-porn for straight women – I wasn’t sure I could stop myself blushing.

‘Girl talk’, then, and ‘emotional undies’, turned out not to be too wide of the mark. I tried something new, and that’s what I got. But I’m satisfied – all in all I’ve enjoyed putting my reading in other people’s hands – and I’m not the only one. Back at the BBC, after the recording, Louise Latham – the young librarian who organised the trip from Walsall – told me about a project she’s running for her master’s degree on recommending fiction. Twenty-nine volunteers, most of them retired and housebound, had agreed to try whatever books she suggests. ‘My aim is to broaden their fiction horizons,’ she said. ‘I have lots of old ladies who will only read Catherine Cookson. I’m asking them to step up to Joanna Trollope.’ One man, who previously read nothing but war novels, sampled Terry Pratchett and loved it. ‘I was so thrilled – now he’s got all of those to read. And I recommended Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam to a lady who normally reads English detective novels or aga sagas. That was great, she said she would never have tried a Booker winner – it would have been “too difficult”.’

What a marvellous project. What’s next, I wondered. Ulysses? The Collected Works of Bertrand Russell? Something by the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare? ‘No,’ said Louise patiently. ‘You have to remember that we’re talking about working class people in Walsall. If you can get someone who only likes Catherine Cookson to enjoy Joanna Trollope that is a big success.’

I think she’s right. We can all belong to reading groups: high-brow and low-brow; women and men; London and Walsall; officially and informally. No need for a university degree, all it takes is two people and a shared love of books. This was brought home to me towards the end of my own Year of Reading. My sister, who lives in Australia, telephoned to say a friend of hers was coming to London for a week. Brad was flying over specifically to catch the city’s massive new literary festival, The Word. Would I mind showing him round?

We met in Hampstead, and I showed Brad some literary landmarks: Keats’s house, the public loos where Joe Orton picked up strange men, and a café where I recently spotted Jonathan Coe. Brad was not entirely overwhelmed, having already bought several first-editions and presented them to authors for signature. Meeting Julian Barnes, he said, he’d asked questions until Barnes became uncomfortable and got up to leave. At another event, Brad spoke to AS Byatt, who was extremely nice ‘despite the plummy accent’. Still to come, however, was the big event: Brad’s hero Martin Amis speaking at Swiss Cottage library.

Back at my flat, over tea, the conversation continued. Brad mentioned ‘a guy called Tibor Fischer’ who had appeared on the same bill as Byatt. What did I think of him? For more than an hour we chatted happily about writers, literary theory and the future of the novel. Brad, I realised, had established an ad hoc reading group in my living room.

Four days later, he telephoned from his hotel. ‘I’ve only got six minutes before I check out. There’ll probably be somebody knocking on my door soon,’ he added rather dramatically. ‘How was Amis?’ I asked. ‘Fantastic. I’ve had a great time, but that made the whole trip. He read a story from his new book, and after half an hour he took questions.’ Indeed, Brad asked a question himself. As far as I was able to understand it, this had something to do with anthropomorphism and certain comments that Amis had made on a prior occasion. ‘He gave a detailed answer to that,’ says Brad. Afterwards, presenting the author with an early novel for signature, Brad told Amis he’d come from Brisbane just to see him. ‘He said that was “a long way”. He was really interested, thanked me for my question. He was great. Listen, thanks a lot for the other afternoon, and I hope you don’t mind me calling. But you see, the thing is – you know – this whole thing has been fantastic. I just had to talk to somebody about it.’