A good read and good friendships - why we love book groups
It’s not just devotion to literature that makes thousands of women get together every month to discuss novels
Emunah’s Camille Compton and Jennifer Paul mark their Book Circle’s birthday
The demise of the book has long been predicted. Television was forecast to rip us forcefully away from the novel but somehow the written word survived — indeed adaptations of classics such as Pride and Prejudice actually boosted sales.
Then, along came the PC. Who would want to read a novel when there were so many gaming and social networking opportunities? However, the advent of the Kindle has revitalised publishing and taken much of the hassle out of reading on the go.
But there has been another factor in the renaissance of reading — the book group. Over the past 20 years, thousands of people — primarily women — have been forming reading groups to discuss books. They take many forms — some resemble closed orders in their tightness and exclusivity and others invite everyone to join in and participate.
Unsurprisingly, where there are books and discussions to be had, Jews feature prominently. Suzanne Franks, who is a London-based professor of journalism, has participated in her book group in north-west London for many years.
She says: “Over time the members of our group have been through all of life’s challenges. They have had to deal with deaths and divorces and new partners. One member left the group and we just couldn’t agree on how to replace her. When you’ve all been together for so long, the idea of taking on a new person is quite contentious.”
Rules are strict. The meetings are fixed, so if a member has not completed the book chosen for discussion, there is no chance of a postponement. Franks says: “You’ve had your chance. Sometimes people who haven’t finished the book ask us not to spoil things by revealing the ending, but that’s their problem.”
There is also a formula for choosing books. Members all take their turn to recommend their favourites, but they have to come up with a choice of three or four, the merits of which are then debated until a consensus is arrived at.
Franks’s group is different from many in one particular respect. Rather than merely discuss a book in the comfort of someone’s home, they have been known to convene their meetings on the road.
“In the past we regularly went away for long weekends. And we would base the choice of book on the place we were going to. There was a Spanish author for Bilbao and a Portuguese one for Lisbon. The holiday would become the meeting.”
Franks’s group also take to the road in this country. They discussed John Preston’s book The Dig on location at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, where the famous excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial ship took place.
Lawyer Sarah Anticoni enjoys the book group formula so much that she is a member of two of them. One is a group of Jewish women who have been meeting regularly for 12 years. The other is a non-Jewish group. She says the dynamics are very different.
“The Jewish group is always hosted in someone’s house, which means there is a culinary aspect. We have discussion about the book we have read but much of the time we are actually arguing over what we’re going to read next.”
'The group is very close. All the founder members still attend regularly'
This contrasts with her other, non-Jewish group. “It is quite serious — a bit like therapy. There is a much wider range of literature that I normally wouldn’t touch, including science fiction and historical biographies. In my entire life I would never have gravitated towards that area of the library. I’ve read the same book in both groups and had very different discussions. We read Nathan Englander’s short stories in the non-Jewish group and a lot of the nuance was completely missed. ”
Anticoni acknowledges there is a downside to having two books to read at any given time. “It’s a bit like being in the middle of an A Level course — you are reading set texts all the time. But unlike
A Levels, there is no test at the end and there is a joy in listening to several other people who all have their own take on a book you have all read.
“I spend one evening a month with each of the book groups come what may. I spend a considerable time each month reading the one or two books chosen (as I found this month while indulging in Anna Karenina) to the exclusion of the other tomes accumulating next to my bed.”
One common theme which tends to emerge when talking to book club members are the close ties that build up between them. Jennifer Paul’s Emunah Book Circle will be celebrating its 11th anniversary next month and still has many of its original members. It differs from many groups in being open to all-comers (as long as they are women), but the core group have attended every meeting since Paul set the group up.
She recalls: “The committee wanted to know what they could do to interest the older members who were no long able to contribute to our work. I suggested the book circle. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
Paul is the driving force to this day and jokingly describes herself as “a mini dictator”.
She chooses the books — ensuring that the titles are all in paperback and preferably available at local libraries. She has also persuaded local bakers and caterers to provide food for the women. “It’s become a labour of love,” she says. Recently, Andrew Miller, the author of Snowdrop, addressed the group.
For many groups, the social and culinary aspects are paramount — one member described his group as “more like a takeaway pizza club where books are sometimes discussed”. Others take the discussions very seriously. In the United States it is not uncommon for groups to employ a professional moderator.
Although less common in this country, Alex Gordon, who used to teach semiotics at London University’s Goldsmiths College before forming his own branding company, was employed by a book group for several months.
“Everyone paid £10 each for me to guide the sessions. I would prompt questions and inform about techniques for analysing literature — how to read between the lines. I also tried to get them to explore lines of thought which might not occur to them. But the important thing was not to run it like a seminar — I was really just helping the discussion.”
He adds that a moderator can provide an added benefit in allowing everyone’s voice to be heard — useful if there are dominant characters in the group.
He feels there are echoes of Talmudic discussions in the book-group format. “It’s very similar to the way one might introduce a shiur and facilitate a free flow of conversation. I help them turn the text in a Talmudic way, although obviously from a secular perspective.”
Discussions at the book group based at Hale Synagogue in Manchester are not led by a moderator but do not lack in intensity. According to Sonia Lee, the co-founder of the group, which has been running for 12 years, debate has often raged into the small hours. Her group is characteristic of many in being women-only. Lee explains that this feels completely natural to her.
“Once we get talking after the book discussion has finished, we get on to women’s issues. Men wouldn’t be interested It’s not that we’re averse to men, but we like it as it is. The group is very close — all the founder members still attend regularly.”
For this reason, Lee feels that the group must be kept at a manageable number. “We have 10 to 12 people. You don’t want too many otherwise it loses its intimacy.”
They tackle a wide range of books, all of which are recommendations from members. Among the most successful discussions were those about Bernice Rubens’s Brothers, Kazuo Ishiguru’s Never Let Me Go and The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.
The popularity of the book club is not confined to any one age group. North-west Londoner Louise Dobrin’s group is comprised of women in their 30s, but the they first met 10 years ago when the members, mostly ex-Habonim, were fresh out of college. She says: “We read fiction, non-fiction and biography. There is probably a feminist leaning.”
A recent read was Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson.
Dobrin says the books often provide the catalyst for debate. “Having different people’s insights read makes you question your own feelings. And it can often offer a route into discussion of much wider issues.”
Jewish Book Week runs from February 23 to March 3. Full details at www.jewishbook.com