World Book Day: Why reading groups are suddenly cool again
On World Book Day, Arlene Harris reveals why being part of a reading group offers more than just a friendly chat and a glass of wine
On World Book Day, many of us will be curling up with a good page-turner, but those of us who've enjoyed a session at a book club know reading doesn't have to mean solitary confinement.
Book clubs take many forms - some are informal and relaxed, while others maintain strict guidelines for each meeting.
Over the years, I've taken part in a few reading groups, and while some disbanded due to people moving away and others simply fizzled out, I am still a loyal member of the Ballyogan Book Club which, despite meetings growing further apart, has been in operation for over a decade.
Due to both the hectic pace of life with young families and the demands of busy careers, pinning down a date that suits all of us is never easy, particularly as, since its conception, the club has more than doubled in size.
In those early days, seven or eight of us, who all happened to live on the same road, thought it would be a great way to ensure regular get-togethers. Then as more people moved into the area, the numbers grew and soon table extensions and 'good chairs' were an essential part of any book club evening.
While the chosen book is central to the conversation, being a group of neighbours, there are always plenty of other topics to be covered - as it's a really good excuse for a large group to down tools, abandon their laptops, spreadsheets, kitchen utensils and families, put on a bit of lipstick or hair pomade and head to the latest hosting venue with a novel tucked under one arm and a bottle of wine in the other.
And of course, being local to Ennis, the creation (in 2007) and subsequent success of the Ennis Book Club Festival (which takes place this Friday to Sunday) has served to highlight and celebrate the countless groups like ours in and around the town.
This month, the group gathered in my house to catch up, propose a new read and make plans for the upcoming festival. The mood, as always, was light and giddy and really made for an enjoyable discussion.
In our club no one minds if you didn't like their chosen book. There is no need to worry about putting together a coherent, intelligent synopsis in advance as we are neither a debating society nor a class of students preparing for a degree in English literature - instead, as well as a social outlet, the group is merely a means of making reading less solitary - as there is something very satisfying about being able to discuss how certain characters made us feel or why we believed an ending was disappointing after a really gritty read.
I remember some of our liveliest discussions, provoked by the likes of Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap (were Gary and Rosie right to press charges after another parent slapped their somewhat precocious son at a barbecue?), Cormac McCarthy's The Road (which had some members up in arms about whether we should even read books deemed to be so depressing) and Emma Donoghue's Room (another bleak title that gave rise to a heated debate about whether or not Ma should have told Jack the reality of their fate).
Book clubs are particularly useful for those who find themselves bursting to dissect provocative themes in certain works, and each session provides a generous dose of good-hearted cajoling and camaraderie.
Stephanie Woods from Tipperary is a member of several book clubs - some she facilitates through her role as librarian in Clonmel and one which, like mine, involves her neighbours in the village of Grange.
Aside from the obvious benefits of reading more, she believes book clubs offer the perfect excuse for busy people to get together and enjoy some time out.
While the likes of Emma Watson, Mark Zuckerberg and Kim Kardashian have launched their own online book clubs, you can't beat an in-person discussion with your reading group.
"I always have a real book with me as nothing can replace the feel and smell, plus you never need to recharge it. In fact, only one of our club members uses a Kindle - but we still like her," she jokes.
"Our group is made up of seven busy women who make time to read at least one book per month. We all live around the village and apart from the book club, we rarely see each other unless at the school or rushing to some extra-curricular activity."
Stephanie, who has been to all but one of the Ennis Book Club Festivals, says those who claim to be "too busy to read" have yet to discover a gripping book.
"When people say they don't have time to read I think it's just that they haven't found the type of book or author they like," she says. "There are so many books to choose from and something to suit everyone, it's just a matter of finding what appeals to you - so unplug the TV, turn off the wifi and just read."
Brian Comerford has been a member of his local library book club for the past six years. The retired public servant from Kilrush, Co Clare, says he really enjoys discussing or, to be more specific, debating the novels with others.
"I love being a part of a book club firstly because I have found myself reading books that I would never otherwise have chosen, and secondly because I really enjoy the diversity of views. As a group, we actually encourage dissent rather than agreement because it makes for a more lively discussion," he says.
Ciara O'Donovan is another avid book club fan from Dublin. "We meet every five to six weeks to discuss the book - how long we spend talking about it varies as we often veer off into other topics, anything from Netflix and politics to moisturisers," she says.
"Then we choose a book for the next month by taking a vote - which is sometimes decided on its length or font size.
"One of the best things about a book club is hearing how other people imagined the characters or places, which is often totally different (to my own interpretation). We are all so busy, so retreating into a book is a means of escaping from reality," she says. "Even though I often scan the news or opinion pieces quickly, I always take my time with a book - which is great as it allows me to slow down for a while."
Indeed. Time to put the kettle on and get stuck into the next chapter, I think.