Saturday 16 December 2017

Behind the scene at book clubs

Book-clubber Alison Walsh asks if reading groups are challenging our literary habits - or are they just an excuse for a glass of wine

Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, in Gone Girl, a great book club favourite
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne and Rosamund Pike as Amy Dunne, in Gone Girl, a great book club favourite

Not so long ago, book clubs meant the brightly coloured insert in the Sunday papers, offering a range of tempting books at knock-down prices for a monthly membership fee, to be read in the comfort of one's own home. Book clubs are no more, but instead, there has been a quiet revolution in reading, as groups of people all over the world come together to read books and to discuss them. But aren't book clubs just for ladies who lunch, an excuse for another glass of Chardonnay and a bit of a natter? As one slogan proclaimed: "Oh, you read important books? How sweet. My book club just drinks."

For TV producer Ann-Marie O'Callaghan, who founded a book club in 1998, the social aspect was certainly important. While living and working in London, she'd heard about book clubs from a friend and was intrigued by the "self-imposed commitment and deadline involved. I liked the idea that at least by the end of the year I'd have read 12 decent books and discussed them." But setting up a group of her own when she came home to Dublin was also about making friends: "I suppose I didn't know that many people, but it didn't take a feather out of me setting it up; I just invited people I quite liked but whom I didn't know very well."

For Maire O'Halloran, her job running the Clifden Bookshop along with Nicole Shanahan, had made her shy about being in a book club. "But then I thought, 'I read books just as much as I sell them, so why shouldn't I? I'm not compromised by doing so.'"

Indeed, no self-respecting bookshop, or other cultural institution, is complete without a book club nowadays. Take, whose administrator, Diarmuid O Mathuna, set up, a monthly online bookclub as gaeilge. "It's about leveraging the power of the internet to connect people who are speaking and learning Irish from all over the globe, and also to link to form physical book clubs as well." provides resources to help clubs along, such as a glossary of each book, reviews and podcasts.

So, the impetus for forming a book club can differ, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the membership tends to be mainly women. When setting up the Clifden book club with friend Eily Vaughan, O'Halloran says, "We did put out feelers to some men and it was a curious thing, it was as if they weren't comfortable with being asked. We wanted to have 50-50 in terms of men and women, but we were declined," she laughs.

The book group now has eight female members and one brave man. But while there might not be much in the way of gender balance, O'Halloran is keen to dispel the myth of the rural book club as an outing for socially-starved individuals - the literary equivalent of the country pub. "Rural readers have the same needs for getting together and discussing literature as our urban neighbours do. Book lovers are connected subliminally to each other regardless of their location."

A fair point, but how are the books selected? For O Mathuna, the choice of books for ClubLeabhar is dictated largely by what's available in the Irish language. "There's no point in saying that every book is fantastic, because otherwise people won't know which book to choose, so we have to be critical of the book. For something that's so small as the Irish-language publishing world, it's all the more important to be able to say, what are the real gems that are being published out there?" Among these gems are classic short stories by Padraic O Conaire, but also Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's contemporary Aisling No Inion A, with its abortion storyline. "We try to be as topical as possible," O Mathuna says, but the club also offers translations of classics, such as HG Wells's War of the Worlds and some bilingual texts "because we have a lot of followers in the States who might not be as fluent - they really enjoyed that approach."

For O'Halloran, the books are selected through a process of filtering. "We'd decided that we were all to come and give a talk about our 10 favourite authors, which was hugely interesting, because none of us had more than two or three that we doubled up on. We knew then that, great, there are unexplored avenues here. You want to be challenged."

Challenging certainly describes the club's first choice, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. "If there was ever a book that would kill a book club, it was that!" she jokes. The length of the Booker-winner, at 700 pages, and its array of voices, made it the literary equivalent of a walking group attempting Everest for a first outing.

But that seems to be part of a book club's ethos, to read things that you might not otherwise try and to stimulate discussion. As Ann-Marie O'Callaghan explains, "Sometimes you enter into worlds where you wouldn't normally go," recalling the group's choice of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. "I found it very hard going altogether. That would be a classic case of one where I would never have gone past page 10 by myself, but I kept going because I had to," she laughs. While this might sound like a bit of a chore, O'Halloran points out, "So many of us get stuck reading the same kind of book and to read a book that you particularly love, it's hard to pick up another and be released from that one." That is why she wants to initiate a rule whereby fiction and non-fiction alternate, to provide much-needed light and shade.

So far, so good, and not a single reference to wine, which brings us to that all-important social lubricant.

Maire O'Halloran says, "We tried to say at the beginning that we wouldn't have any alcohol until we'd finished discussing the book, but that felt too much like school, so now we have a glass or two and then we stay after the discussion to have a good old natter."

For O'Callaghan, book club discussions are held over the dinner table at a sit-down meal, but the important thing is that "everyone makes a huge commitment to come, because the group is so small. We've always said, if you're really tired, try and come, so people have come in and lain down on the sofa and thrown in the odd word, which I think is really good. You can just be yourself."

If you want to set up your own book group, but maybe need a bit of an extra push, your local library will be able to help, as many book clubs are run by enthusiastic librarians. Or perhaps you could set one up with a friend if you are too shy to do so by yourself.

And if you do, set up some basic rules, like what books to pick in general - you might love Gone Girl, but some genres promote better discussion than others. Decide whether wine will be front and centre or whether tea and biscuits will accompany the discussion. Appoint a diplomatic person as a facilitator, so that no one person dominates. Arrive along with a point or two to get the ball rolling.

And, wine or no wine, enjoy the bonding.

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