In praise of the community book club

Sit down and make yourself comfortable in the pub backroom/living room/restaurant/church/village hall/community centre/field/library space. Take that first sip of your beer/wine/gin/water/squash/coffee/tea/lemonade. Awkwardly riffle through the pages of your book and look at your scribbled notes in the margins. Turn to the person next to you, smile, and say hi. That’s right, the community book club is about to begin.

I can’t think of a much better way to meet and talk with strangers than a community book club. You start the night like you’d start a first date –  a bit awkward, a bit nervous, a bit self conscious – except that rather than checking your phone every five seconds you check your book. Then it kicks off, and you work up the courage to speak, to say a little something about your favourite character, or your favourite chapter, or even simply why you hated the damn book so much, and then you’re off and there’s no stopping you.

By the end this is like the best date you’ve ever been. Conversation is flowing. You’re bouncing ideas back and forth, finding things in common, sharing laughs. You feel smart, articulate, and good about yourself. And you can’t wait for your next meeting. Here though, you’ve begun to make twenty new friends, rather than just the one.

Yes, I’m pushing the analogy too far, but the point I’m trying to make is how important a part of local community book clubs are and could be. I’m not just talking about the kind where a small group of close friends meet to discuss books – although they are GREAT too. I’m talking about the kind that bring strangers and neighbours and different communities and multiple generations together in a room. The sort that invite these people to sit down together and chat and find common ground and celebrate their shared curiosity and imagination. The kind where you come away feeling smarter than when you walked in. In a world that can sometimes feel big and lonely, and after a day when you’ve spoken to people more over email and text than face-to-face, sitting in a circle with a group of interesting strangers with a drink in one hand and a book in the other can feel marvellous.

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This week I was lucky enough to run a community book club. It was the first one in the little town where I live, and I was honoured to be asked by the organisers to choose the book, think up some questions, and then lead the session. We had hoped that maybe four or five people might show. It was the first one after all, and we were advertising through local posters and in the library rather than over social media. In the end, there was nearly twenty five of us, all crammed into the backroom of a local pub. I’d chosen ‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson as our first text. This is not an easy book by any means. It is a slow read, and demands reflection and consideration. It is not action packed. In fact, hardly anything happens. There are large sections dedicated to considering lighthearted issues like the doctrine of predestination, Calvinism, dying, and forgiveness. I LOVE ‘Gilead’. It’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I come back to it again and again as an example of the kind of prose that breaks – or rather transcends – all the ‘rules’ of creative writing.  However, as the date for the book club drew closer, I worried that I might have scared some people away, or that everyone might struggle to find enough to say. I needn’t have worried. Although not everyone shared my love of the novel, every single person had something insightful to say. Members who had begun the evening quiet and withdrawn ended it in friendly debate, laughing, and on the edge of their seat waiting to respond to whatever point had just been made from across the room. Although it was a big number, it still felt intimate, and there was a chance for everyone to talk – whether in smaller groups or to the club as a whole. We were so into it that no one even thought about grabbing another drink. Great for us, not so great for the pub. In the end I had to cut the debate short for fear we’d be out too late on a work night. People left chatting, still talking about the book, with a visible spring in their step.

My one reservation about book clubs is that they can meander. Although you start with good intentions, without a structure to your conversation you end up running out of things to say quite quickly, and the conversation turns to work, tv, partners, and kids. For this reason I ran the book club quite like I would an undergraduate seminar (although no one got told off if they hadn’t finished the reading!). I wanted to get past the initial ‘I liked it because…’ and encourage people to really pick apart the plot, style, characters, and major themes. People might argue that this means it wasn’t a book club, but I’d defend the use of pre-set ‘things to think about’ and a book club leader. A good seminar is one of the absolute best things about studying literature at university. You leave feeling inspired, galvanised, smart, and impressed with yourself and your fellow students, Everyone should get to feel that. And everyone should get the chance to realise that they can have an intelligent, sustained, and satisfyingly challenging conversation with a group of strangers about any book. Sometimes it just really helps to have someone (and to could be anyone, take turns amongst your friends) guiding the conversation and inviting members to expand and develop their initial ideas.

So here’s an invitation to set up a community book club. Get in touch with a library to supply some books. Choose something that you think is smart and beautiful and challenging. Put up some posters. Find a free venue (church halls and pubs are great for this), think up some questions and go! Or if you don’t fancy doing all of that get me to come along. I’ll happily be there.

For our next book club meeting I’ve chosen ‘The Essex Serpent’. Now I just need to start prepping…

 

 

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