Why Belong To A Reading Group If You Don’t Like Books?


e2191505c671674fab7f119e0ae8ab3fA couple of weeks ago a friend invited me along to a reading group that she convenes for a local arts organisation.  I already belong to three book groups, and I wasn’t sure that I either wanted or had the time to attend another. However, I was interested in the book that they had scheduled so I decided that once couldn’t hurt and, having read the novel, dutifully turned up to add my two pennyworth to the discussion.

Each of the other groups to which I belong has its own very distinct personality and each is peopled by very distinct characters.  If you were to give me a transcript of a discussion from any one of the three with no names attached I would immediately be able to tell you which one it came from just by the flavour of the conversation.  The one thing that they do have in common is a real interest in books and in spending time attempting to understand what it is an author has been trying to achieve in his or her work.  They are not groups where the discussion comes to an end after ten minutes.  In fact, in the two of them where we meet in hired halls we have to be careful we don’t get thrown out for exceeding our time limits.  We like books; it’s why we meet.  So, as I set out, book under my arm, to visit this new reading group I was expecting to find myself in a similar situation.  How wrong can a person be?

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  We didn’t crack open the wine and start discussing our Facebook pages (what Facebook page?) within a hair’s breadth of arriving; the discussion was, at the very least, intellectual.  The problem was that it had very little to do with the book. As the new girl I went in with the intention of staying mute for the first half an hour or so, until I’d had the chance to test out the nature of the group and the type of comment it would be appropriate to offer.  I’m not certain I actually achieved the appropriate part of that aim because when I did finally open my mouth it was to say very quietly, although perhaps not very diplomatically, that I didn’t think that I’d been reading the same book as everyone else.  I didn’t add that I’d arrived at that conclusion because as nothing I’d heard seemed to offer any sort of reasoned exploration of the novel in question I could only assume that in fact they hadn’t actually read it at all – that might have been a step too far!  It also wouldn’t have been true.  They had read the novel sufficiently well to pick up minute faults in the text which they could then use, first, and briefly, to lambast the author and secondly, to offer an oration – at length – on their own erudition in respect of whatever the perceived failings of the writer might be.  One by one they tumbled over themselves to bring their particular area of supposed expertise to the fore and take over the ‘platform’. The noise level was actually painful.

Now, I have been in many a discussion where we have picked up an error of fact in an author’s work.  I am still smarting over the writer who had a group of Victorian Englishmen claim that somewhere was relatively close by because it was only thirty-five kilometres away!  But, because we are readers who care about books, we have raised the point, and then considered it in the light of what it might say about the veracity of the rest of the text, and moved on – not used it as an opportunity to show how much we know about the history of linear measurement in the UK in the nineteenth century.  We have been there to discuss the book, not polish our own ego.  In this instance I wasn’t certain that the other people there were what I would call readers at all.  When I was asked to describe them the word that came to mind was competitive.

And who was it that asked for a description?  Well, there was a postscript to this story.  It transpired that the reason my friend had asked me along was because she was sick to the back teeth of these people, who apparently always behave this way, but had no idea how to tackle the problem.  What would I do?  And it is a problem.  If it were just one or two then I would shut them up by asking the quieter members of the group to give their opinion of the book and stamp down hard on anyone who tried to interrupt, but it seems to be all of them.  Hence the noise levels.  Very reluctantly, I think she is going to have to withdraw.  She has to be away for three months at the end of the year and that would seem to me to be the perfect opportunity to let the position go.  But has anyone been in a similar situation and have other options that she might explore?





18 thoughts on “Why Belong To A Reading Group If You Don’t Like Books?

  1. If it wasn’t for the fact that your friend is kind of in charge of the group I would have suggested she just leave. As it is, why doesn’t she make a point or two? Ask the noisiest one if he/she would like to take charge of the group from now as as she’d rather belong a book group that actually like books. I think she should definitely go, but I think she should make it clear to them *why* she’s going – then she should come and join one of yours! 🙂

    1. The problem is that she is just too nice for her own good. I don’t know the history but there are good reasons why she would have been asked to run the group in the first place and they make it difficult for her to get out of this. She has got to be out of the country for the whole of the autumn period and I think she needs to use that as a way out.

  2. Hi, Alex. I agree with your commenter above: quickly and as politely as it’s possible to muster shove responsibility for the know-it-all book club on one of those who thinks they know it all, and then come along with you to one of yours (or more than one, if she wants a good choice). You could also advise her depending on what she tells you her specific tastes are, given your close knowledge of the other three groups. Life is just too short!

    1. Yes, you’re right, life is too short for that sort of aggro. I’m fairly certain the ‘noisy’ ones wouldn’t want to take any responsibility on. Have you noticed, those sort never do?

  3. I agree but I think there may be another idea or two worth pursuing. At the next meeting she says something to the effect that she’d like to try a change of format and use some discussion questions which might promote discussion on something other than the flaws of the novel or author. Instead of “what did you think?” Or “Did you like it?” She could ask if the readers had a favorite character or what ideas the author might have been trying to explore or some canned question found online. Then take turns with answers – go around the room or something – how big is the group?

    I was with a group like that for awhile – it met at Panera’s Bread and the leader would intro the book, ask a question and the group (about 15 at most) would deteriorate into mini-groups talking about it or someone’s new baby. A mess. It disbanded but it had been quite an old group and the members started wanting to share their personal lives more than books.

    The other incident was an old friend I ran into and we were catching up and she said something about her book group. Now reading groups are a rare thing around here so I asked her what kinds of books they read. “Books?” she replied, “Oh we don’t read books – we just talk.’ Seems that the same thing happened to her group as happened to mine – the old friends aspect overrode the common interest.

    The garden club here is a lot like that – planting? I want to hear about Rosie’s wedding! lol

    I got off your point – sorry.

    1. Never apologise, Becky! The question idea is worth exploring. One of my groups does work that way, I will certainly suggest it to her. Thank you.

  4. Nightmare group! I think another three meetings would be far too many for me (I take it they meet once a month) if I was your friend. Can she give it up straight away? If so, that would be my suggestion. They don’t sound as if they would take kindly to any changes. I think it would just degenerate into a shouting match again.

    1. That’s my fear, Margaret. I think they enjoy the platform far too much for change to be an option. She has to get out, doesn’t she?

  5. I agree with Kaggsy. I was in a competitive book group in London, everyone clamouring to choose a difficult but trendy book and look clever about it. Yet in the Iris Murdoch Society, we get all animated about our favourite book, our favourite character, even though most of us are esteemed academics and know all the jargon and clever stuff. Escape, poor lady, escape!

  6. Book groups are so difficult to get right. I had to leave one last year because none of the people actually wanted to read. At one meeting someone suggested that we all watch a film together every alternate month, instead of reading a book. Everyone was so happy (except me). The next month (cinema month) about 12 people came along. The next book group? 3. I think they wanted to say they were a member of a book group to sound good. I left soon after, but I bet all those people who just go along for the film nights still like to say they are part of a book group. Weird isn’t it?

    I’m afraid the only advice I can give is to leave and try to start a new group with more like-minded people.

    1. I really don’t get it, Jackie. I suppose it takes so much longer to read a book than to watch a film, but with a book the pictures are always so much better.

  7. I just had another idea. This is only if your friend feels that she really has some commitment to the book club more than what I would have at her point. Why not try to slide into the subject of how to run book clubs by engineering a meta-discussion via reading together the book “The Jane Austen Book Club”? It shows some of the best and the worst of how people relate to books, both those who keep it simple and those who personalize the characters to their own lives. Worth a shot, if she feels too bad about leaving to leave, but miserable staying.

    1. It would be and I think that’s a great idea, but unfortunately because of where the group is held all the books have to be around two particular themes and ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ wouldn’t fit. What a shame!

  8. Oo, tricky! Is she sure it’s worth sticking with when she’s so frustrated with it? I know one thing I’ve had book clubs do in the past, and it’s worked really well to keep the discussion on track, is to have one person be appointed the moderator of each book club. We usually did it that whoever chose the book was the unofficial leader of that discussion. But I don’t know that it would work with this crowd — they sound like they’re beyond help.

    1. I think the moderator would simply speak right through the meeting, Jenny. They are certainly beyond any help I might offer.

  9. Wow, what a group. If your friend doesn’t feel comfortable forcing any kind of discussion rules on the group then she definitely needs to find a way out and the one you mention sounds perfect.

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