Summer School

One or two people have asked about the Summer School I’ve occasionally mentioned, so I thought the best thing to do, rather than clogging up comment boxes with lengthy responses, was to write a dedicated post about it, especially as all the plans for this year are now in place and there is just the small matter of reading the books to schedule.

I’ve always liked the idea of Summer Schools.  The thought of spending a week in the company of other readers, exploring books and discussing the issues raised by a series of linked novels fills me with great oceans of anticipatory pleasure.  But, and of course there is always a ‘But’ about these things, when I explored the Schools available to me I discovered that the cost was completely prohibitive.  The last time I looked, two or three years ago, simply taking part cost anywhere from £400 to £800 and then you had to add accommodation, food and travel onto that.   It would easily have been possible to run up a bill in access of £1000.  I don’t have that sort of money and I’m not sure I could justify spending it that way if I had.

However, I’m not one to let small considerations like that get in the way, especially when so many of my friends were complaining about the way in which their social lives seemed to come to a halt during August as clubs and classes closed down for the holiday season.  So, I suggested that we organised our own Summer School to fill the gap.  This will be the third year we’ve done it and our numbers grow annually.

The basic idea is this.  We choose three linked books and meet three afternoons in a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) to discuss both the individual books and the developing ideas that the commonalities in the novels suggest.  We don’t meet every day because some of the members of the group are quite elderly and would find a daily meeting and the associated reading too much.  Each meeting is held in a different person’s home and each is led by a different reader.  We pay 50p a day to cover tea and biscuits.  A week of pure pleasure which takes very little organising and costs just £1.50.  What more could you ask?

In terms of choice, round about the beginning of April I will put together five sets of three novels, each set associated with a different theme and ask people to rank them in order of preference.  Whichever set gets the most votes is the set we read.

The first year we had a Crime and Punishment theme and read

  • The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerskill
  • The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  • The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

Last year under the heading Then and Now we read three books that all take place in both the present and an historical setting;

  • The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
  • A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin
  • Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott

This year, with the Olympics in mind, I put together five sets each based around a particular country, Canada, Italy, Egypt, Australia and India.  It was a close run thing between Egypt and India with India winning out as the last choice paper came in.  So, come August, we will be reading

  • Staying On by Paul Scott
  • Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala
  • Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

This is a very easy blueprint to follow and if any of you have groups of friends who you think might like to do the same thing then do feel free to copy our example.  If you want to see the other choices I’ve offered in previous years then let me know and I can e-mail them to you.

There really is no point in complaining about what you can’t have when it is so easy to arrange this sort of Summer School for yourself.  I involved people I already knew, but I suspect that if I’d advertised it in our local library I could have got a group together that way.   Part of me is tempted to do that just as a way of meeting new reading acquaintances but I would need both groups to read the same set of books and than would be less easy to organise, however, it might be a way forward if any of you are interested in setting up a similar School.  If you do please let me know how it goes, I would love to hear.


19 thoughts on “Summer School

  1. What a fabulous idea! How structured is this? Do you establish what will be discussed on each of the days or do you just meet for three days of free-flowing conversation based on the overarching themes?

    1. Each day is structured around one of the books, which means in practice that the discussion develops as the week goes on and we start to make links between the books. This was particularly important in the first year because there were some people in the group who had never belonged to a book group and were hesitant about voicing their opinions. Only having the one book to consider at the first meeting made it easier for them to join in. Mind you, the discussion does tend to burgeon as the week goes on and I do have to call a halt to proceedings on the Friday to let whoever is hosting have their home back for the weekend. I do try to find a logical order for the three books involved, but other than that the discussion goes where the members want it to.

  2. Alex, I think your ‘summer school’ is a fantastic idea. I really popped over to say thank you for your comment on my blog (The Book Trunk). I have responded there as well, but in case you don’t see it, thank you so much for commenting – it was lovely to hear from someone who was brought up in the Back to Backs. The stories and memories of residents in the display above the NT shop were fascinating, and what came across very clearly (especially from the recent past) was strong sense of community. I only hope I didn’t offend you by concentrating on the grotty side of life, but I did make it clear I was writing about the 19th century.

    1. Not at all, Christine. The sense of community is what I remember most strongly about the twenty years I was there. My parents had a corner shop and so we were at the heart of that community. There were times when I was teenager when I hated it (everyone knowing everyone’s business) but as I grew older I came to appreciate the way in which everyone pulled together when there were problems. It was a hard but a good life.

  3. What a great idea Alex! I think you can get so much more from a book when read alongside others on a similar theme.

    Can I ask what Italian books you selected? I’m in need of inspiration.

    1. Rather predictable, I’m afraid, Claire. Forster’s ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’, Elizabeth von Armin’s ‘The Enchanted April’ and Salley Vicker’s ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’.

  4. I love your summer school. I just wish I could join you. Maybe you can share something with us from your group’s discussions of the books.

  5. This is such an excellent idea, and so do-able! The book club I’m in has themed reading, but we meet monthly and the theme will last for three meetings. It works really well for us. I was always a comparative reader as a critic and I think that you can get so much out of books when you place them side by side and watch how differently they deal with the same themes. Have a fantastic time and don’t forget to tell us all about it!

    1. Don’t worry, I always come away with such a buzz after these discussions I shall need to carry on the conversation somewhere else.

  6. This is such a wonderful idea! I don’t think I have friends who would be willing to do the same with me, but I love how well organised and yet doable this sounds. I have to keep this in mind for upcoming years.

    1. I’m lucky in as much as I belong to two very active groups of readers who want to go on meeting during the summer. The really nice thing is being able to bring readers together who wouldn’t normally meet. It broadens all our literary horizons.

  7. This really sounds like such a great idea. And you’re so right. Why complain about what you can’t have, when you can just organize it yourself. I’m often a bit sad that I feel like one of the only people reading contemporary English fiction and classics in the English language in my part of the world, but maybe I’m not. Maybe there’s more of us and I could reach out someway and find them… Food for thought! Thanks!

    1. You could always try asking your local librarians if they know of other people who would be interested, Christina. I’m fairly sure I could get another group together if I did that.

  8. Alex, l, too, would love to attend your summer school. Long ago I was a member of an excellent book group in a different city, and we did discuss “themed” books, alternating novels and memoirs. “Public” book groups are kind of a mix, and crazily the local Barnes & Noble got rid of theirs after Borders closed. But we have a new librarian who might even be interested in organizing such a program….hope springs eternal.

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