Confessions of a Book Club Cynic (or, how I finally got round to growing up)

I love books, but I’ve always hated the idea of Book Clubs. The very idea seemed a contradiction in terms: reading is a solitary activity, not a team sport, and the idea that somebody else might choose what I read filled me with horror. My tastes are eclectic, my time scarce. I had no time for detours, and certainly no time to discuss whatever I’d just read; as soon as I finished one book, it was on to the next. Most of all, I cringed at the idea of being asked ‘how was it for you?’ Reading is the most intimate of pursuits, and I feared my ability to show respect for the opinions of others. Yes, feared. It was Mr. Watson who identified my fatal flaw when he wrote in my school report, ‘Joanne must learn to accept that others have opinions as well as herself’. Of course, at 14, I had no intention of doing any such thing – particularly when other people were so clearly wrong. So I charged chin-first through my teens and twenties, asserting this and contradicting that. Love softened me, work modified me, until I eventually learned the power of taking people with me rather than fleeting verbal conquests. But whenever friends invited me to join their book clubs, I still said no, fearing that with a glass of wine in one hand and a book I loved in the other, my inner I-know-best-14-year-old would once more leak out. It was safer, I judged, to keep my friends and decline their offers. I held this line until I read about The Ship by Antonia Honeywell. I was so desperate to read this book that I applied via twitter for one of two additional places on the Curtis Brown Book Club. The Ship more than lived up to my expectations, and so I looked forward to the on-line discussion and the opportunity for me to tell others what I thought about the book. I posted a review on Amazon and tweeted it for good measure. And then, something extraordinary happened. Other members of the book club started writing about what they thought about The Ship. They posed questions from angles and perspectives I hadn’t even begun to consider: some highlighted the symbolism within the book and the subtle biblical analogies; others wrote about the power of food as an expression of a mother’s love, or the nature and motivation of the complex father figure. Every reader had a subtly different response to the characters and story, and each question and comment enriched and deepened my own appreciation of the book. I enjoyed the discussion so much, that I asked if I could remain as a member. I was delighted when CB Book Club said yes, but less pleased when I discovered what was next on the list: The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah. Ha! This just proved that I was right after all: the problem with book clubs is that they require you to read books that you really don’t want to read. But this book proved me wrong. The A-Z of You and Me, is, quite frankly, a masterpiece, and it makes me feel slightly weak to think that without this book club, I would never have read the words of James Hannah. I blogged about why I didn’t want to read this book, and why I am so very glad that I did, eager to tell others what I thought and to tell others that they MUST read this book. Once again, I joined the on-line book club discussion with the author, and I was humbled and moved by the contributions of my fellow members. It was a perfect illustration – if one were ever needed – of how each individual brings their own experiences to a book, creating a unique and living story each time, like a series of connected but parallel universes. I left the discussion with a deeper understanding of not just the book, but of my fellow human beings. So what now? Well, I don’t know what book I will be asked to read next. More importantly, I don’t care. I no longer feel anxious about the idea of another person choosing a book for me to read. In fact, I am looking forward to receiving my mysterious package, and the opportunity to tell others what I think. But most of all, I am looking forward to listening to the responses of other readers. It’s still early days. My default setting is to speak, rather than listen – indeed, I set up this very blog just so that I could tell the world what I thought of Tim Lott’s piece on being an author. But finally, nearly 30 years after my school report, I think I might just be ready to take Mr. Watson’s advice: I think I might finally have gotten round to growing up.

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