Sunday 16 December 2018

A novel idea: niche book clubs

On World Book Day, Ed Power looks at the resurgence of reading groups and the rise of specialist clubs devoted to different genres

Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine
Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine

Remember when book clubs were the epitome of naff? It's not long since they were synonymous with chattering-class types chugging wine and wittering about the Booker Prize shortlist.

But as we mark World Book Day today, it's clear a new chapter has lately been opened. Reading has become fashionable again - with booksellers including Waterstones reporting a sharp jump in profits in 2017 - and book clubs have moved away from their fuddy-duddy image, with endorsements from savvy celebrities and niche groups devoted to specialist topics, from social justice to Irish language fiction.

Off the rails: Emma Watson hid books on the Tube
Off the rails: Emma Watson hid books on the Tube

Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine, is just one of the familiar faces to become involved. When fans set up a book club in her honour, she suggested the first title on the list should be Opposed Positions by Gwendoline Riley.

"I've been a fan of Flo for almost six years. I was only 12 or 13 when I discovered her," Athlone native Leah Moloney, who set up the Florence club Between Two Books, told the website The Debrief. "I always knew she was interested in books and I remember thinking it would be so cool if she had her own book club.

"Then three years ago she tweeted a picture of her outside a bookshop in Portland, USA, looking really happy and the caption was 'books, books, books'. I tweeted something about how we should start a book club where she gives us recommendations and we read them together and discuss them." Florence was so thrilled that she actually invited Leah and other book-club members to come up on stage in Normandy in 2016.

Emma Watson, aka Harry Potter's Hermione, has also got on board. As part of London's Books on the Underground project she stashed copies of the latest pick from her feminist book club Our Shared Shelf in Tube stations across the city. Which is a bit annoying, frankly, but also testament to the revival of this shared reading experience.

Mark Zuckerberg, the crown prince of Facebook, is another celeb to launch a book club. Three years ago, he announced he had made a New Year resolution to read one book a fortnight and invited tens of millions of Facebook users to join him.

"I've found reading books very intellectually fulfilling," he wrote in a post. "Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today."

His first pick was Moisés Naim's The End Of Power, which contends that once powerful positions have lost their dominance. It was a pick that would arguably take on an ironic hue, given that during the American Presidential election, Facebook was accused of supplanting old media and helping usher in the era of fake news.

There's been a trickle-down effect with non-celeb book clubs seeing a rejuvenation. Movie fans in Dublin, for instance, have become ardent members of the Light House Cinema's club, which selects books loosely tied into upcoming films.

"The book club idea came about as a result of trying to find fun ways to make the Light House a more social space for the film community," says the cinema's programmer Charlene Lydon. "We have a great bar and love the idea of using it as a place where we can bring film lovers together socially. Myself and my colleague Chelsea Morgan Hoffmann, who co-hosts the cinema book club, are both very interested in adaptation, so we liked the idea of a group chat about what we like or dislike about the adaptation and interrogating why some of those decisions were made.

"It's also a good excuse to broaden the Light House programme and show older films that we might not show otherwise," she says.

"While there is definitely chat and definitely wine, our book club is a mix of men and women. I can't speak for other book clubs but in our case, I don't think we have been affected too much by that stereotype. I like to think that everyone knows they're welcome to join in the chats. We're definitely conscious of ensuring a mix of genres to suit all tastes so we have done everything from Jane Austen to Bret Easton Ellis, Nabokov and JK Rowling."

As book clubs are enjoying a modern reboot, there has been a rise in the number of groups specialising in specific genres. Wired magazine hosts a science fiction and fantasy book club, and there are clubs devoted to everything from horror to crime to non-fiction.

Online book clubs are flourishing too. There is the aforementioned Wired club and, closer to home, the Irish language, which picks a new book each month. The titles covered are varied, with past choices including the translation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde and for the latest pick, Orna Ní Choileáin's collection of short stories, Sciorrann an tAm. To assist readers, the club provides a bilingual glossary while there's an online discussion forum to delve into the novel.

Readers aren't satisfied with gossiping over a few bottles of wine anymore, and instead look for book clubs with a difference.

"I've been part of three different book clubs over the years and none of them involved drinking wine," says crime author Louise Phillips. "The important thing is people getting together and enjoying books. If it involves a couple of glasses of wine, so what?

"As for prominently female participants, book clubs do vary. I've visited book clubs with more than 20 female members, and one solitary male, and others where there was an even split. Statistically, research shows that more women read books, especially fiction books, than their male counterparts, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that female membership of book clubs is high.

"If you want your book club to be gender neutral, then think about this at the set-up stage and as the group develops. I like to think readers are readers and gender, as in other aspects of life, shouldn't make a difference."

One reason book clubs have made a comeback, it is argued, is because with smartphones and social media wreaking havoc with our attention spans, they provide a framework that encourages long-form reading. It would be going too far to suggest reading for book clubs is a form of homework, but perhaps it is no bad thing that, feeling obliged to finish a book by a deadline, we knuckle down rather than waste another half hour surfing Facebook.

"Personally, I find that being 'forced' to read a book per month makes me create time to read, which I might not do otherwise," says the Light House's Charlene Lydon. "The added idea of comparing book to film adds an extra level of context to the reading of the book and perhaps lends a different perspective to the experience."

Irish Independent

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