A 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?