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Clubbing together to read

Karen Elder describes how her reading group got off the ground and how you can set one up too.


Do you ever feel bereft when you have finished a really good book? Do you stand in bookshops trying to fill the void, wondering what lies behind the titles and reviewer’s quotes? As your eye runs along the shelves do you put off reading The Dead Sea Scrolls until ‘next time’? If so, a book club, or reading group, may be just what you need. 

The six founder members of our book club gathered for the first time over a glass of wine and a simple pasta supper on the first Tuesday in September about three years ago. No-one knew everybody, but we all had something in common.  We had all just read Anna Karenina,  and conversation flowed. Soon we were exchanging views on Russian literature, the merits of the classics, long books, etc. Someone had made a list of all the words in the book that she was not sure she understood correctly. The informal quiz that resulted was illuminating and revealed that we all needed to brush up our vocabularies. 

We had to be brought back to the matter in hand which was to organise the administration of our club. After some debate we decided to hold our meetings over supper at a different member’s home each month. The month’s host would also be responsible for choosing the book.  

At first we often chose books by authors new to everyone as we all wanted to explore the unknown, but quite often no-one enjoyed these books. We soon learned that winning the Booker Prize does not guarantee readability. Since then a selection from which to choose by a majority vote has usually been put forward, and generally the person has read the books or is familiar with the authors. 

The size of the group also turned out to be important. When there are more than ten of us the discussions become unwieldy. Less than six and it is sometimes difficult to get a good exchange of ideas. The other pitfall is adding new members. We all assumed that people who read lots of books would be ideal. However, bookish people had often already read the books put forward and a few were more anxious to show off their literary prowess than join in the exchange of thoughts with us lesser mortals. 

But some groups are more highbrow than others, some have a particular purpose — to read the complete works of Dickens for example. The culture and expectations of the group soon emerge. If you are joining an established club, it is a good idea to find out first what type of group it is, not only for its book selection but also the style of the evening. We decided to keep food simple to avoid competitive cooking, but some clubs have become food and wine orientated because that is what all the members want. At others, people bring their own sandwiches. 

Members also recommend other books and lend books to one another. The club provides the impetus and discipline to read some heavyweight literature and people are often pleasantly surprised by how much they have enjoyed something they had been afraid to tackle  -  or are comforted that others have found some so-called classics unreadable, too.  But most prefer to chop and change and explore. 

For me the best thing about a reading group is going out to supper once a month for a purpose, with a group of people whom I have got to know and like. The membership changes gradually which adds interest to the gatherings, and as we get to know one another a lot of chit chat is exchanged between the more serious business, which is fun. I look forward to hearing about the new book to read and to our dinners on the first Tuesday of the month.  It has become a sacred date.


Checklist for setting up a reading group:


1. Find a friend who enjoys reading and between you organise a group of people whom you think would find time to read a designated book a month. Two heads are better than one to create a wider membership.  
2.  Choose a book for discussion at the first meeting. Do this at least a month before and let everyone know what it is.
3.  Arrange the first get together.
4.  Organise your club’s administration at this meeting:
5. Choose a regular evening each month on which to meet so that everyone can plan around it in the future.

Make a different person the host for each meeting — wherever it is to be held. You need to have someone in charge of organising the evening. He or she needs to ensure the next book is chosen, and also steer the conversation back to bookish matters if it wanders too far into the realms of holidays and nail varnish. 


Decide on where you are to meet. This could be at a different member’s house for dinner/supper/sandwiches; alternatively in a restaurant or pub. Or even, if you are lucky, in your friendly neighbourhood bookshop.


Ask members to ring the host a few days before if they are unable to come. 


Find a volunteer to produce, circulate and update an address list of the group members. 


Agree on a book selection process.

For further information see Reading Groups published by Oxford University Press price 5.99



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