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Why book clubs are turning over a brand new leaf


Thirst for knowledge: The book group gathers in Galway’s Charlie Byrne’s

Thirst for knowledge: The book group gathers in Galway’s Charlie Byrne’s

Andrew Downes

From right to left: Charlene Lydon, Chelsea Morgan Hoffmann, Helen Hutton, Rebecca Davies and Aoife O'Regan at the Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield, Dublin

From right to left: Charlene Lydon, Chelsea Morgan Hoffmann, Helen Hutton, Rebecca Davies and Aoife O'Regan at the Lighthouse cinema in Smithfield, Dublin

Claire McLaughlin

Claire McLaughlin


Thirst for knowledge: The book group gathers in Galway’s Charlie Byrne’s

When Claire MacLoughlin came across a well-worn copy of a Patricia Cornwell novel earlier this month and noticed a small asterisk scribbled on the inside cover, her eyes welled up. The star-like symbol was inscribed by her late grandmother, with whom Claire had always swapped books.

That tradition ended with the death of her grandmother two years ago. But the 34-year-old soon found another opportunity to share her life-long love of reading when a book club was set up by one of her fellow teachers at Pobalscoil Neasáin, a secondary school in Baldoyle, Dublin.

Every few months, the teachers gather at the school's oratory at lunchtime to analyse the latest book they've read and discuss their themes.

After reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, they debated how long they'd stay in a poisonous marriage, and have explored the ethical issues raised by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about a black woman whose uniquely immortal cells were harvested without her permission in 1951 for years of biomedical research before she died from cervical cancer.

"We sit in the oratory, eat our lunch and talk rabidly until the bell goes," Claire says. "I love to hear what other women say about the issues that affect us. We all know each other now and because we have a private connection, we'll stop in the hallway to chat."

Like her colleagues, the busy mother-of-two has learned to carve out time for reading and resist the digital distractions that experts once feared would bring the centuries-old solitary pursuit to the brink of extinction.

It is estimated that the average smartphone user checks their device up to 150 times a day, creating concern that the temptation of endless pings from new tweets and Facebook messages has eaten into our attention span, reduced our appetite for reading anything longer than 140 characters, and eroded the book-loving community.

But hand-wringing about new technologies spelling the demise of reading is nothing new; in the 1950s, for instance, American academics and policy makers lamented that the rise of the television set would have the same effect.

Bibliophiles are learning when it's time to switch off their digital devices to indulge their love of a good book in uninterrupted silence.

And when they do want an old-fashioned face-to-face chat with other book lovers, they use social media and online forums as mere facilitators, rather than replacements of, the traditional book club.

Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, arguably the king of social networking, has cottoned on to the resurgence of communal reading.

His new year's resolution was to read a book every two weeks in 2015, and he invited his 30 million followers to join him. Within 24 hours, his first selection, The End of Power, a non-fiction tome by Moisés Naím, the former editor of Foreign Policy magazine, had sold out on Amazon.

When Claire is not reading or listening to an audiobook, she follows her favourite authors on Twitter and uses apps such as Goodreads to further expand her literary community. The latter, based on the world's largest book-reviewing website, catalogues readers' entire book collections and enables them to share what they are reading on their social networking feeds.

The first Tuesday evening book club held at Charlie Byrne's, the iconic book shop on Galway's Middle Street, in February 2013 was so popular that the store has since added two more clubs. The Wednesday mornings groups are mostly attended by shift workers and full-time parents, while the Thursday evening club is aimed at fans of travel writing.

Megan Buckley, who co-ordinates the clubs, says: "There are so many ways on the internet to share how you feel about a book, from Facebook to Goodreads, but nothing replaces personal contact and the kind of spontaneous discussion that opens your mind to something new. In the digital age, people are even more hungry for a personal connection."

While the clubs are informal, the lively conversations they generate tend to stick to the book at hand, unlike the book groups hosted at private homes, where discussions are often oiled by copious amounts of wine and gossip.

But Charlie Byrne's does facilitate socialising outside book discussions, in the form of occasional parties and outings to literary events.

On January 6, after a visit to the store by Mary Costello, whose debut novel Academy Street was shortlisted last year for the prestigious Costa Book Awards, members of the Tuesday evening book club repaired to the nearby Cava Bodega for wine and tapas.

A year after the Light House Cinema in Dublin's Smithfield reopened under new management in 2012 after a brief hiatus, Charlene Lydon and Chelsea Morgan Hoffmann looked to the tried-and-tested formula of the book club to attract more cinema goers. Some 50 people now show up every month to watch the film adaptation of a book and meet in the cinema's bar afterwards to compare it to its literary predecessor.

Charlene says: "It can be quite playful. For instance, we read Emma by Jane Austen and then watched Clueless, and read Dangerous Liaisons and compared it to Cruel Intentions."

The pair only need Facebook and Twitter to inform the public about the latest choice of book title and its movie adaptation.

To further pique interest in the cinema book club, they occasionally invite guests. After a screening of the film What Richard Did, the book club was joined by its screenwriter, Malcolm Campbell, and by Kevin Power, the author of Bad Day in Blackrock, the 2008 novel upon which it was based.

For Claire, meanwhile, the most unexpected advantage of belonging to a book club is that it has helped her abandon her literary prejudices. It has introduced her to genres she would previously have dismissed, including the Shardlake series of mystery novels by C.J. Sansom, which are set during the reign of King Henry VIII.

"Historical fiction would normally send me running," she says.

"But after I read the first one, I bought them all."

The secret of success

Think about the number of members you can comfortably accommodate in your club. Between six and ten is good - small enough to allow everyone to have their say but large enough so the meeting can still go ahead if a couple of people don't show up.

Decide how frequently you will meet and whether there will be a break during the summer months. Holding the club every four to six weeks usually gives people enough time to find and read the books.

Consider how much time you can devote to organising meetings. Are you prepared to rush home from work to clean and line up drinks and snacks for the club? If not, delegate some of the responsibilities to other members or take turns at hosting the meetings.

Decide how to organise your reading list. Your group may prefer a particular genre, such as Irish literature, romantic novels or science fiction.

Ensure the book isn't too long - Crime and Punishment might discourage busier members.

Consider setting basic ground rules, such as allowing each person to speak for a few minutes about what they thought of the book. Have a few starter questions to hand in case the conversation flags.

For reading list ideas, check out the shortlists for the big literary prizes, such as the Costa.


Irish Independent