The Book Club

So yesterday I attended my first ever session at a book group. I almost didn’t make it. Not that anything prevented me from leaving the house, or driving through an immaculate spring evening to my son’s school. When I arrived it had that centuries-abandoned look that silent buildings acquire when they are usually swarming with life. The empty games pitch swept away to one side, like a small green ocean, birds tweeted cheerfully in trees and nothing could have been more idyllic or more quintessentially English. I walked up the broad concrete steps before the double glass doors and – nothing happened. Usually they part welcomingly as you approach them, but not on this occasion. So I briefly checked out the rest of the doors I could see on the front façade, somewhat gingerly as I anticipated tripping the security system and setting off klaxons blaring and sirens wailing. But no, only the birds kept tweeting in a landscape of complete human desolation. I stepped up to the double glass doors again, and hopped up and down in front of them, but still nothing. I reviewed my options. Had I over the course of the day accidentally sold my soul to the devil and was therefore now incapable of triggering the release mechanism, which refused to acknowledge me as human? Didn’t think so. Had I maybe got my dates mixed up, and was standing outside the book club venue on the day I was supposed to be at the writing group? Such eventualities are not unknown to me, but again, no, not this time. I decided the book group had a trapdoor, known only to initiates with a secret password, and that clearly all I needed to do was wait until a member came along and shadow them. I listened to some more birdsong and in about five minutes a car drove up, whereupon I exchanged suspicious glances with the woman inside it. When she got out, I called ‘Is it tonight for the book group?’ and she replied enthusiastically, ‘Oh yes!’ Encouraged, I said ‘Only I can’t get in the building.’ ‘That’s odd,’ she said. ‘Usually the glass door on the left is open.’ And of course, even as I registered the words, I could now see that the furthermost glass panel was not smooth as I had thought, but displayed a perfectly visible, if discrete, black handle. Well, duh! ‘It’s okay!’ I called back. ‘It’s just me being stupid!’  And at least in this way the ice was broken.

The meeting took place in the psychology room, that’s to say your average classroom but with a poster of Sigmund Freud on the wall. When I finally got there, a small clutch of ladies were engaged in wheeling a drinks trolley in that seemed laden with bottles and little wicker baskets of snacks. The group leader gazed at me with hungry eyes – a new recruit! – and introduced me to the three others standing around her whose names, in the stress of the situation, I instantly forgot. ‘How did you hear about us?’ the leader inquired. When I said from the school newsletter, there was a moment of pure celebration (‘It IS worth putting our report in there!’). ‘We always tell people we are very friendly and welcoming,’ she said. And indeed that was true. A few more members trickled in and we ended up an all-female contingent of seven with more drinks and snacks than we knew what to do with.

The reason I wanted to attend a book club meeting was to see for myself the kind of discussions that go on there. I was really curious to find out to what extent the book would hold people’s attention, and to witness the conversations it might provoke. I’ve mentioned already on this blog that I was a bit amazed that the books set for the evening had amounted to over a thousand pages, but I’d dutifully read both and turned out to be the only person (apart from the woman who’d chosen them) to do so. I’d only had twenty-five pages of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to go, and had wondered whether I might skip them. But earlier that evening, when I’d been preparing my dinner in the kitchen, I’d been idly tap-dancing in my clicky-heeled boots and my son, sighing at the kind of nonsense he has to put up with, had instructed me to sit down and finish the book. Just as well, really, as there was a twist right at the end that it would have been a shame to miss. The Kate Summerscale was up for discussion first as it was the one most people had read. One member introduced the book and the liveliest moment was, without doubt, the first opportunity we all had to give our impressions. The women around the table were all keen and well-read; they were ready to talk about any aspect of their reading, but were extremely cautious of being critical, and I would be surprised if any of them had ever studied literature. They were altogether enthusiastic, well-intentioned book lovers. And I can recall almost nothing that was said about the book; the memorable parts of the conversation were indeed to be found almost exclusively elsewhere.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a non-fiction book that presents a detailed, scholarly but extremely readable account of an infamous 19th century murder case. It concerns a middle-class family – a father, Samuel Kent, an inspector of factories, with older children from his first marriage (mother now deceased), a second wife, and a new set of young infants. It turns out that his second wife was originally the governess in the family, and her displacement of the first wife (who was claimed to have been mad) had occasioned a displacement of those older children in the parental affections. The victim was one of the younger children, a three-year-old boy named Saville, who had been rather gruesomely murdered and thrown down the outside privy.  I won’t say much more than that as the question of who did it is repeatedly solved, only in order to be repeatedly put in doubt. The author does come up with a solution that she presents as final (it’s almost the last paragraphs of the book), and which seemed convincing to me.

In the one memorable part of the book discussion, one of our members disagreed with this and put forward her own solution which was delivered with absolute certainty but on extremely slender grounds. I goggled at this, my academic sensibilities offended. Reading against the grain is all well and good, but you don’t do it without some pretty compelling evidence. What really made me laugh was that the same member then went on to say that she couldn’t bear it if books weren’t accurate, particularly in medical details (she is a doctor). I tell you, my heart sort of bled at that point for all the misunderstood authors of the world, who are held up for ridicule by the reading public for having their characters drive the wrong way down a one-way street, but whose fundamental arguments have been willfully tossed aside. Inevitably I wanted to argue against this reading, but I was conscious that to do so presented quite a diplomatic challenge. I didn’t want to look unfriendly or superior at my first meeting. So I suggested that it was interesting to consider the characters we thought of as suspicious, because it must surely bring into question what we each, individually, considered to be criminal behaviour. And I said that detective stories were curious in the way that they encouraged us to attribute reason and logic to emotions that are in fact hugely capricious – the book talks at one point about how surprised people were, when these murder stories started hitting the headlines, by how little motive lurked at the basis of violent crime. I tried to be careful, and not too pretentious, and yet I will confess that in my heart I felt a bit of a know-it-all and an intellectual bully – why shouldn’t this woman think whatever she likes about the book, if it gives her pleasure? But these were all intelligent women, and I was equally uncomfortable with the thought of not pushing the discussion as far as it would go.

But inevitably, it was the tangential that held the day. What really got the discussion going was mention of the mysterious ‘breast flannel’ that plays an important part in the murder investigation. None of us had a clue what it was – it could have been anything from a truss to a teddy – and there was much talk of googling the term, or looking for one on ebay. This led to a discussion of liberty bodices and then vests, as the undergarments of childhood obligation. The very friendly woman sitting beside me told a funny story about coming across old bridesmaid pictures in which the pretty scooped neckline of her dress revealed the inglorious outline of her thermals. ‘I knew I should have rebelled against wearing it,’ she said. I never heard her say a single word about either book, not even whether she liked them. She talked readily about the Madeleine McCann case, and joined in the other lively debate about cherished family relations turning out to be wicked abusers (I had inadvertently started off this one by relentlessly plugging the intellectual, this time the split between public and private). And I have to say I enjoyed the stories and the anecdotes. It’s just a part of me felt sort of sorry for the lovely books, so replete with mystery and meaning. I had to wonder whether my professional interest in reading simply distances me from the general reader’s approach to books, in the same way that ex-train drivers don’t spend their weekend with railway enthusiasts, and retired doctors don’t nip down the road of an evening to visit hypochondriacs anonymous. We want different things from the objects of our devotion. But I liked the group and I’ll go to the next meeting in May. I can’t help but feel, in my meddling way, that must be a way to encourage readers to go deeper into a book, it’s just I haven’t identified it yet, haven’t found the words for it yet. Although part of me can’t help but feel my fellow readers went to their homes saying ‘my goodness me, didn’t we talk a lot about the book tonight – who was that tiresome woman?’ 🙂

P. S. For Wilkie Collins enthusiasts, there was very little discussion of this book, as we were running out of time and steam after the Summerscale. But all who’d read it loved it and warmly recommended it. One very interesting thing I was told – apparently Collins fell gravely ill near the end of the writing and worried he wouldn’t finish it. ‘Never mind,’ his mate, Dickens said. ‘Pass your notes over to me and I’ll do it for you.’ It seems that he probably didn’t, but some blame the ‘unsatisfactory’ ending on Collins’ enfeebled state. This was a blow – I thought the ending was remarkably unusual and enlightened, and it turns out to have been a product of brain fever. Well, duh, again!


27 thoughts on “The Book Club

  1. What a funny, vivid and insightful description of book club meetings. I think it’s generally true that the book is a pretext or jumping off point for more general discussions, not to mention food and drink. I hope that you’re successful in bringing up the literary end of things. I’ve had similar experiences at book groups and though I enjoyed the company just felt that I read too differently. I’d love to start a writers’ reading group, but I’ll have to wait until my kids are older. At this stage homework comes first. And after homework, my brain is fried.

  2. What a great post. I have only ever once joined a book group and only made it to one meeting, largely because I thought the discussion pretty feeble. I long to join a really intelligent one — perhaps one will appear in my range of vision one day. I’m getting to the end of Mr Whicher so I’m glad you didn’t put any spoilers in here.

  3. Sounds like you had a pleasant experience for your first book group discussion. It’s always interesting to hear about other book groups because I think each has its own unique dynamics.

  4. I’ve been part of a book group for ten years — in fact, this weekend is our annual weekend away, in which much alcohol is consumed (not to mention food) and books are not much in evidence. Your desire to work on ways to push people in their thinking about books without being tiresome is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. Every time we meet I come home feeling like I’ve been a pain in the neck. But I keep going, because I love those poor books (the ones I manage to read anyway) and, like you, want to see them properly represented in the meetings. Also, these are smart, engaged, interesting women. And sometimes our meetings are just magical — like the one where we’d just finished a biography of Thomas Jefferson and that same day the news broke that William Jefferson Clinton had… well, you know. That discussion was passionate and smart and interesting in part because it was historically informed, something that doesn’t happen often enough in this country.

    There’s so much more to say — and I’m glad you’re going again, because I look forward to your next post on this experience.

  5. Oh, how fun. I’m glad you’ve decided to go back and to see what you can do with to encourage people to go deeper into the book — I’m very curious to see how that will go! And it’s interesting to think about the various ways people respond to books — it’s certainly hard for me to think that a non-analytical approach is fully satisfying, but clearly I’m biased! I like the mental exercise of trying to imagine how other people approach reading.

  6. What a great description of a book group discussion. I hope you had fun overall. Do you think you’ll go back? Coincidentally I just had my book group last night. I must admit my book group is unusual, because we are a bunch of friends who decided to start a group after having known each other for years. We always have really good food and wine, and though we start out discussing the book, we always digress to more personal discussions. Last night we really talked about the book–books, actually, because we had read two: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, and The Believers, by Zoe Heller. As usual, I hogged the conversation for awhile, quoting long passages and asking pesky questions, and completely relate to your conjecture about the book group’s thoughts afterward: ‘my goodness me, didn’t we talk a lot about the book tonight – who was that tiresome woman?’–except my friends absolutely know who that tiresome woman was–me! But they don’t seem to hold it against me, and actually welcome my comments. Plus I’ve gotten better at recognizing glazed looks when I’ve gone on too long! But I guess what I love about the actual discussion of the book is the tangents that you mention, the occasionally unexpected turns the conversations take, the funny facts you learn, the on-the-spot googling that happens, and the laughter. There’s always lots of laughter! And even though we have one woman who hates everything, and another who always wants to read something lighter than I do, and several other quirks that could be annoying, I still really cherish our discussions, even when I disagree with many of the opinions ventured.

  7. yep, that pretty much sums up book clubs. i don’t mind the departure from the text because i go in assuming this will happen. i usually try to keep my degree a secret, but sooner or later they figure it out.

  8. What a perfect description of book group shenanigans! They sound like lovely women, really, but ultimately it was not you who were attempting to go through the wrong door…

  9. I had a little giggle about your attempt to get into the book club building. I think trying to get into or out of a building and failing more than once is almost as embarrassing as falling down in the street. I know this because I had to try three doors twice each before the security guard took pity on me and let me out of my work building the other day. The book group sounds like a lot of fun. I can’t wait to read how the next one goes.

  10. Your enjoyable account reminded me of so many things I had gladly forgotten about these groups, although the one I went to was not so coherent. No one read the same book! If by accident someone had read something I had read at some time, it struck me that one of us had a strange Ur-text, which was significantly different. Still the joys of variant readings, you know. It is odd and interesting being among normal readers, or whatever the term is. Only the other day my daughter, now 14, who likes reading, complained that she was starting to see things in her books like studying those in class, which spoiled them. I vaguely suggested it was just a passing phase and would probably wear off in time!

  11. I loved this description and I’m glad you’re going back for the next one. Reminds me of my book clubs which I had to give up in Joburg. The South African bookclub is a poorer version (since books are more expensive here) and people generally don’t read the same book. Would love to see how this group develops.

  12. Ah yes, your group sounds like all the book groups I have ever attended. The most lively part of the conversation is never about the book. I am one of those tiresome women too. There must be one in almost every book group. I had to laugh that Herr Freud watched over the group. What are you reading for next time?

  13. Your description sounds all too familiar from past book groups, and I am another such tiresome woman. Perhaps you should start The Tiresome Women’s Bookclub, a sanctuary for those who have fled other groups?
    My current group is an absolute joy, in that each time I come away from it I am delighted and amazed by how much time we spent discussing the book or issues arising therefrom.
    And I loved Mr Whicher, and found it fascinating not only for the crime but for the social upheaval that the first detectives caused in having the right to invade an Englishman’s castle.

  14. I’m much too introverted to brave a book group, although I enjoyed your report vicariously. I haven’t got to the The Suspicions of Mr Whicher yet, but am glad to hear you enjoyed it.

    I’ve always loved that Collins-Dickens story.

  15. Excuse me commenting twice, but I had to go look up the details of the anecdote:

    The year was 1862, the book No Name and hearing Wilkie’s gout was bad Dickens wrote:

    “Write to me at Paris at any moment, and say you are unequal to your work, and want me, and I will come to London straight, and do your work. I am quite confident, that with your notes, and a few words of explanation, I could take it up at any time…I hope that the knowledge may be a comfort to you. Call me, and I come.”

  16. Lilian – oh I hear you about the homework! And a writers’ reading group sounds like a brilliant idea. I would love to attend something like that – in years to come can you make it virtual so I can join in?

    Harriet – Mr Whicher is so delightfully twisty that I didn’t want to breathe a word, even though on the other hand, I long to discuss it! I would have liked to start a book group with academic friends, but when you spend all day teaching books (which is an imperialist form of book clubbing) you hardly feel like doing it in the evening too!

    Lisa – I’m sure you are right and they are all different in their way. And the ladies of the group were lovely – very friendly and kind.

    Bloglily – Ten years is WOW – amazing! And a whole weekend away testifies to some great friendships. I’m really reassured by you (and other commenters) saying that you also push for more literary-type discussion. The other kind is lots of fun too, it’s just nice if there’s both. I can only hope to one day have the experience you had of literature and politics colliding. That must have been something else altogether.

    Dorothy – that’s it exactly – I’m just hooked on analytical discussions. I LOVE analysing; it gives me so much pleasure, but I quite accept it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m thinking that the key is maybe to find the points of profound intersection between books and life, but hey, this is work in progress. I’ll let you know how it goes! 🙂

    Gentle reader – you belong to the best groups, really you do! I did enjoy the evening and I’m definitely going back, if only in the hope that people get used to me enough to find my interventions tiresome in a good way! It must be lovely to get together with friends over a book – I can think of nothing nicer and I’m so glad you’re another sister in the struggle for lots of lovely book chat. I do agree that the digressions were a lot of fun – there must be a way to make those digressions literary somehow. I’ll keep working on it! 🙂

    Emily – oh yes, I didn’t breathe a word of my former profession and don’t think I really said anything that would give it away. You’ll have to let me know one of these days how you were unmasked, as it were! I’ll bet there’s a good story in that. 🙂

    ds – oh you are such a sweetie, really you are! lol to that comment!

    apiece – did I ever feel like a fool? Bless you for sharing your story about being trapped in work. I have a strong inclination at the best of times to push when it says pull… lol!

    Bookboxed – what a funny comment! I cannot get my head around a book group in which everyone reads different books – hilarious! Whatever must that have been like? But what you say about the Ur-text is spot on. Last night I really did wonder whether some of us had different books in mind or had at least skipped a few chapters. I do like your comment to your daughter – I hope she appreciated that!

    Stefanie – You know, I think I have been spoiled by the brilliance of the Slaves. 🙂 They have accustomed me to a level of discussion that just might not be available offline! We were a bit hazy as to what we were going to read. Justine Picardie’s Daphne, certainly (which might mean a reread of Rebecca for some) and then a gardening book. I suggested The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift (but got the title slightly wrong – duh again! I was on form last night) or there was another one whose title I didn’t catch. So it could be four books next time!

    Ms Musings – what a marvellous idea, The Tiresome Women it is; I’d be up for that, quite clearly! I wish I was in that book group too, and it’s not fair that I live in England. Mr Whicher was a great book – an amazing work of synthesis and a really cleverly put together tale. We did all agree that we’d recommend it!

    Devoted reader – I’m so glad you took the trouble to look the Dickens quote up – that is such a wonderful story! So thank you! I understand about the introversion – believe you me, I would not be doing this if books weren’t involved. 🙂 And I now love reading about other people’s love affairs. That’s my secret vicarious pleasure!

  17. Pity that not everyone read the Collins book, but I was very surprised they chose that over say The Moonstone (such a wonderful detective story that would have went well with the Summerscale book). Do they know you’re a lit professor? Maybe you can gently nudge the conversations on. It’s been quite a while since I was in a local book club, but I have a feeling the discussions digressed in odd ways just as you mention. I think there really needs to be someone to guide the discussion and keep things on track, but maybe that loses some of the sociability that people want? Still, I loved your description. What are you reading next?

  18. oh! This was a treat to read, having just wormed my way into a book club and am always fascinated by how the discussions blow around the room. LOVED the bit about railway enthusiasts and retired doctors; LOL!

    and you know… This is me! ==> “extremely cautious of being critical, and I would be surprised if any of them had ever studied literature. They were altogether enthusiastic, well-intentioned book lovers.”

  19. Danielle – I got the feeling that several of the members had already read The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins has the effect on readers of making them want to read everything he’s written, I think! I never mentioned my job and will try to keep it quiet as long as possible. 🙂 I found the digressions interesting, in that I really enjoyed them myself, and more in some ways than the things we all said about the book. And then, I did wish we could have talked about it more – it’s the teacher in me, but it may well be misplaced! We are definitely reading Daphne by Justine Picardie next and possibly Rebecca if we want to, and one other book, but that title wasn’t finally decided upon – I will let you know what it is!

    Care – you’re right, it is really interesting to see where the discussion goes because you could never predict it! Aww and they were all such nice, kind, welcoming women – it’s a shame you weren’t actually one of them – that would have been fun! 🙂

  20. Oh, how interesting. Can I join your book group? I think it would be too expensive to get there, though! I shouldn’t surprised most people had read the Moonstone–and you’re right he does have that effect on people. I’m sure you’ve read Rebecca–I have the Picardie book, so maybe I should ‘read along’ and will look forward to what you and your group have to say about it. Interesting that they choose two books–that sounds like fun actually.

  21. Sounds like a memorable evening. And it will be interesting to see what happens when you go back. Do the other members know each other very well? I’ve definitely noticed a huge difference in terms of discussion between my two book groups – in one, we’ve been meeting the same five women for almost two years and we know each other relatively well. We’re comfortable now to challenge each other, and quite vigorously sometimes, when we have different opinions. But in my other group, where we don’t really know each other, and our discussions are slowly slowly becoming more interesting.

  22. I have been to a number of book clubs and I’d say most are the same way. I was lucky when I was in Dallas the one book club I belong to for 14 years was fabulous. I don’t anyone was a writer or former lit student but our discussions really went further than the did you like it and why or why not area. I miss my group. Still, I find it fun to go to book groups. Gets me out meeting other people who enjoy reading and am usually always adding more books to my list – ha!

    Glad you went and hopefully it’ll be another fun meeting next time!

  23. Danielle – if only you could hop over and join us! Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I have read Rebecca, but am thinking that a reread would be rather lovely. I’m looking forward to the Picardie and it would be marvellous if you read along – I will certainly be reporting back on what the group thought. I was right behind the decision to read two books – I’d have agreed to far more, I fear, without a second thought! 🙂

    Verbivore – I’m sure you are quite right. It must really help if everyone knows each other well. It was probably odd for them, too, to have someone strange in the group and they had no idea what I was going to come out with! I get the feeling this group has a large floating population, but only seven or so come every meeting, and not necessarily the same people. Well, I shall certainly go back and see what happens next!

    iliana – It was definitely fun to go, and anything that widens my reading is good by me (as if the tbr pile needs it!!). Your Dallas book group sounds wonderful, and I am in awe of any group that keeps going happily for 14 years – that’s amazing! No wonder you miss them! I will certainly go again and report back here. I’m really looking forward to reading Daphne!

  24. I really enjoyed your book club ‘report’! This group sounds nothing like mine, but we’re not a public group so maybe that’s why. We’re all just friends, neighbors, acquaintances- several with advanced degrees and a couple in teaching but mostly just avid readers who love to discuss what we’ve read. We’ve gotten over the overly polite stage after more than 2 years together and can give opinions and criticisms without fear of someone else taking it personally. There’s always a lot of good food, wine, and laughter- also lots of book talk!

  25. I would really like to join a book club and have even thought of attempting to start one up – I have a romantic notion of sparkling yet fun literary discussion. However, I fear that I may well find myself also feeling like a bit of a know-it-all, or even worse, I might end up being on the other side of things. I hate the thought even more of being the not-knowing-it-enough person!

  26. I have been in – and out – of various bookclubs over the last 15 years and all these comments ring true for me. I find that the best book discussions I have are with friends or acquaintances sometimes on the bus and Tube on my way to or from work. I love finding someone reading the same book as I am and engaging them in conversation. Not time in depth analysis I know but a great way to make connections and share inspiration.

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