Friday, September 08, 2006

Book Group Rave 

CW blogged on reading groups today and my comment became Too Long.

As CW points out, it's not just the commitment to reading and discussing a book that can make you weigh up whether it's worth it. The social setting, especially when groups usually meet in members' homes, can make it feel like too much hassle. I think this is what made me most nervous when I joined a book group down south.

Our town, population 1000 if it's lucky, supported two book groups. The 'serious' night time group required members buy the books, with each member buying one month's read for everybody. Our group hired books from BookTalk and contributed $60 to the kitty ($6/month). That's a little more than city groups might pay because we had to cover postage. Any left over went towards our Christmas lunch.

Our group was a 'ladies' group. I was the youngest lady, and the only one not to have married or have children. I often felt awkward: bumbling around unfamiliar homes (which often had spectacular views and yummy food, by the way!); needing to organise a lift to half of the meetings because I don't drive; and almost-but-not-quite representing the generation of most members' children. I persisted because I didn't want a little awkwardness to be the reason I stopped going. I needed to get out.

I think most members enjoyed getting out too, away from husbands and families, to be frank and open and to share their own stories, and to form friendships. The group wasn't (and no doubt still isn't) just about the books. Members lives changed dramatically in the two years I belonged and the monthly meetings remained a constant, even if people couldn't always turn up.

Reading books I hadn't chosen gave me some freedom. There was no expectation that I would or should enjoy it, or even get something out of it. Unlike at school or uni, there was no pressure to remember details or to figure out what someone else thought the writer was trying to say.

I'd never have chosen to read a book that almost caused me to pass out, especially an autobiography, but in doing so I faced a horrible reality - one that I think was worth knowing.

At the first book group I attended, we'd read Kim Scott's Benang: from the heart. Only myself and one other member finished it. I'm the only one who felt like she benefitted. I felt like I knew more about Western Australia when I finished and I even bought the book.

I could identify with the characters in Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, just because they're of my fame-obsessed generation, while some other members found them 'repulsive.'

Not everyone read each book with as much or as little attention each time. At one discussion, I found myself explaining that two of the characters weren't real, in the end. I really liked that book but other people read many more books than me that month, had other stuff to think about, didn't find it interesting or easy enough to get into, and didn't notice the details. But it didn't matter because that's how we got to know more about each other, and people in general. I learned what writing and subjects caused people to want to throw books away, or to fall asleep.

I also learnt more about myself. I tested how far I could get discussing a book without having read it. I learnt I can read differently. I learnt how much I was willing to share about my life, and those of my friends, when it seemed relevant (usually I chose not share too much) and I wondered at other people's experiences.

Discussing a book is a little like blogging. The book is not the beginning and the end, the book starts people talking. I think a book group is about the group as much as the book. I'm not sure the experience would be the same online.

Comments:
Thanks, Dee! Your points are good ones, which, seeing as I haven't ever been a member of a book club, meant that of course I wouldn't have experienced them myself. A case of don't-knock-what-you-haven't-tried, I guess, huh... :)
 
Hi CW,

All of your reasons not to join a book group are valid. And I forgot to mention book group guilt, as I intended. :-) You can probably guess that every group is different and that not every meeting or book is a raging success. Strangely, sometimes it's the books that nobody liked, read or quite understood that generate the most conversation. :-) Anyway, you've caused me to write way too much on this already so I'll stop!
 
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