Book groups – are they really necessary?

Last year I started a book group with two friends. It got off to a good start – we read Toni Morrison’s Beloved:


And loved it. We discussed the various themes, the narrator’s tone, slavery.

Then three became five when two more friends joined. We discussed which books we wanted to read and decided we’d meet monthly. Someone explained that they didn’t have that much time to read – so asked that we read books with a lower word-count. This meant that one of the books someone else had suggested was cast off the list.

We agreed to try Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo. This was veering from our ‘fiction only’ rule but as we were all up for it, it didn’t seem to matter. After three weeks we talked about meeting up but it transpired that only two of us had read the book.

The five of us began talking about whether we should bother with this book group. If people weren’t reading the books (lack of time/ interest) it wasn’t going to work. We wondered whether we should start a ‘culture club’ – yeah – cringe name, but the idea was nice: one month we’d go to see a film, another month we’d go to a talk, another we’d read a book. It was about getting together but not just getting drunk.

It didn’t work out.

Since the collapse of our group, I’ve been wondering whether book groups are actually a good idea. My problem is that there are so many books on my ‘to read’ list – and, selfishly, I’m not really willing to put my list to one side to read someone else’s suggestions. And this is the premise of a book group – people with different literary tastes meeting and introducing each other to literature they might not normally read.

I have an English degree. I spent three years reading books and discussing them – so I get that group analysis and sharing your varying perceptions can be enlightening. But as you grow older you develop your own tastes: there are authors you favour, whose books you rush to buy when they’re newly published, whose talks you go to. And you read reviews of other authors, deciding whether or not you should try reading their work.

If you remember, as a child you started reading out-loud, with someone else, and then learned to read ‘silently’. If you were that way inclined, you’ll have developed a love of reading on your own. Your parents / friends / teachers introduced you to books, which you read and that would have helped you to start developing your own literary taste.

In your teens, you’re encouraged to read aloud again, in class – to share ideas, debate. And this continues if you go on to university. But when you leave university and begin working, you return to reading privately; for pleasure. Like you did when you first discovered that you loved reading as a child.

So I’m returning to that wonderful time when reading was just for me, to transport me to other people’s minds and ideas and realms. And in much the same way as a child appreciates recommendations, I do too. But I’m not then obliged to read those books, or to meet to discuss my opinion.

Reading, for me, is about privacy and freedom. You’re swept away into another world and you go there alone. It can be useful to talk about how you perceived the book, but people can also ruin your positive experience by divulging their own negative experience. And I’m not sure that you need a monthly meeting, and a set book, to broaden your literary horizons.

Decision made. I’m not joining another book group.

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