BOOK CLUBS: All sorts of people, from children to retired teachers, are meeting up regularly to discuss the books they've read – among other things. ANNA CAREYmet up with four groups of readers who are members of book clubs
ll over Ireland, in hotels and sitting rooms, in bookshops and libraries, at solitary computer desks and crowded pubs, people are gathering to talk about books.
Book clubs, once a novelty, are now a part of many of our lives, whether we’re reading a TV show’s latest selection, chatting about books online or gathering for dinner and literary debate with old friends.
We met members of four very different clubs to find out why they love reading in a group and what a book club means for them.
THE CHILDREN’S CLUB
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It’s safe to say that most book-club meetings don’t include declarations of love for Jedward or the revelation that another member has a pet cucumber called Bob. But the group that meets every month at Dubray Books in Bray, Co Wicklow, is no ordinary book club. Its members are almost all girls aged between nine and 12, and the club was started nearly a year ago by Dubray’s children’s book buyer Kim Harte.
Each book is chosen by a member of the group, and popular past selections include David Walliams's The Boy in the Dressand Trenton Lee Stewart's The Mysterious Benedict Society. When I drop in on a meeting, the girls are gathered in a corner of the shop, where Harte skilfully leads the discussion, asking questions about the characters and plot. The replies are all impressively thoughtful and insightful, but there's still a lot of good-natured goofing around.
It’s clear that everyone’s having a lot of fun. “I really love talking about books and hearing everyone’s opinions,” says 12-year-old Jennifer O’Leary.
The club has expanded its members’ literary horizons. “I love books, and I was running out of books I thought I’d like to read,” says Helen Russell, also aged 12, who has been pleasantly surprised by some of the selections. So has 10-year-old Anne Forte. “You learn not to judge a book by its cover and you end up reading more books.”
While the girls read books at school, they much prefer the book-club approach. Many say that books are read too slowly at school, and they can’t say what they really think.
“At school, if a book is bad, you feel you can’t say anything really bad about it,” says 10-year-old Hazel Lewis. And while some of the girls often discuss books away from the club, for others it’s an important chance to talk about their favourite subject. “Apart from Sarah, I wouldn’t talk about books with my friends outside of the book club,” says Emma Byrne. “That’s why I like book club so much – it’s a place where you can say anything about a book, whether you like it or not.”
The next book on the club's list is Noel Streatfeild's 1936 classic Ballet Shoes.Several of the girls have already read and loved it, and we enthusiastically discuss Streatfeild's work for a few minutes before I remember I'm meant to be working. But it's no wonder I couldn't help joining in the discussion – the girls' joyful passion for the books they love is infectious. Every book club should be this much fun.
“I love everything about it,” says Jennifer O’Leary. “It’s just really cool.”
THE YOUNG WOMEN’S BOOK CLUB
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“It’s totally changed the way I read,” says Louise Keegan of her book club.
“I always read a lot, but I don’t think I invested enough in what I was reading. I’d just read to get to the end to see what happens. With everything I’ve read since starting the book club, and not just book club books, I find myself analysing the characters and thinking more about it. It was a wake-up call – it made me feel like I’ve wasted years of reading, but I’m making up for it now.”
Keegan, who works in the travel industry, is just one of a group of women in their 20s and 30s who meet every month, usually in a city centre pub, to discuss their latest selection.
The club was started about a year ago by radio producer Róisín O’Dea and some of her colleagues at Phantom FM. “We’re always patting ourselves on the back for keeping it going for so long,” laughs journalist Emer McLysaght. “We’re very smug.”
The members think the group's laid-back attitude is what has kept it going – they don't have a strict schedule, and just find a date each month that suits everyone. Over the year they've discussed everything from Bonfire of the Vanities(by far the most popular, to the group's own surprise) to Let The Great World Spin, and all agree that not only has being in the club expanded their literary horizons, but it's also enhanced their appreciation of everything they've read. "It becomes like a group effort," says radio journalist Aedín Donnelly. "Róisín will pick up on one thing, I'll pick up on another, Louise picks up on something else, and we put it together and come up with a better understanding of the book."
Sometimes, the discussion can cause members to reappraise their views. “I sometimes think I didn’t like a book and then when we’re talking I’ll think, ‘oh, actually, I did like that bit’,” says student Mitzi D’Alton. “The others made me realise I’d liked something more than I thought.”
And while the social element is crucial, the women always devote at least the first hour of each meeting entirely to the book. “The book always comes first,” says O’Dea. “But then we always diverge into the same three topics: box sets, other books we’ve read, and how much I like cheese.”
THE ONLINE CLUB
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Literary discussions don't have to take place in person. Paul O'Dwyer, a dentist from Nenagh, is a regular participant in an online club founded by Joe Mallozzi, executive producer of the popular science-fiction television programme Stargate.A fan of the show, O'Dwyer was already a regular reader of Mallozzi's blog when the producer responded to fans' questions about his favourite science fiction and fantasy writers by starting a regular book club devoted to the genre.
The books are all suggested by the book-club participants. “Joe himself has final say on the choice, but it’s very democratic,” says O’Dwyer. “He tends to pick new authors who may not get a look in against the more established authors.”
This means that O'Dwyer has found himself reading and loving books he wouldn't have otherwise considered or even known about, including Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Darkand Jasper Fforde's The Fourth Bear.
Not just focusing on the biggest names in fantasy and science fiction has another advantage, says O’Dwyer. “These authors also tend to be more available and willing to undertake Q and A .”
One of the benefits of an online club is that authors can easily engage with club members. “Authors tend to feel that the forum is a friendly place in which to discuss their work. They are open with the readers and grateful of a way to interact with them,” says O’Dwyer. “Some questions are repeated, so most authors do a round-up of general questions. Other authors answer each individual commentator, addressing them by name, which is pretty cool.”
While online debates can easily get overheated, O’Dwyer says that Mallozzi’s bookclub is a peaceful place. “ a very friendly discussion,” he says. “The comments are moderated by Joe. Honesty and frank discussion are encouraged, and overall it’s a worthwhile exercise for reader and writer – or so the authors have said.”
O’Dwyer’s not averse to real-life debates, too – he’s also a member of a regular book club, which tends to discuss bestselling literary fiction. But, he says, despite the popularity of science-fiction films and television such as Inception and Lost, most book clubs “tend to shy away from science-fiction”. This is where the internet comes in. Although he’ll admit that a real-life club has its advantages too. “It also includes a glass of wine – which is absent from online discussions . . .”
THE RETIRED TEACHERS CLUB
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About five years ago, when Marjorie Murphy of the Retired Teachers’ Association of Ireland decided to set up a Dublin members’ book club, the idea proved so popular that the club quickly had to split up into smaller groups.
There are now two branches in north Dublin alone, and one of them meets every month in the Regency Hotel in Drumcondra. It’s still a much bigger gathering than most clubs – about 25 former teachers attend every meeting, paying a small fee for tea, biscuits and room hire.
Member Betty Hogan thinks the size of the club is an advantage. “It’s manageable, and it means that everybody is free to talk or keep their mouths closed – you don’t have to enter the discussion if you don’t want to. And you don’t feel bad if you haven’t managed to get hold of and read the book. You can hear what it’s about and make up your own mind whether you’ll read it or not.”
Cecily Lynch sometimes thinks she’d like to join a smaller club as well, where things could be discussed in more depth. But she still loves the current club, and says it has exposed her not just to authors she would have otherwise ignored, but also genres. “I’m inclined to read biography and autobiography,” she says, “The club got me away from that and into reading more fiction.”
The club has also forced some members to give authors a second chance. "I'd read Ian McEwan's Saturdayand didn't like it at all," says Mary Carey. "So when I heard the next book was AtonementI wasn't very pleased. But I loved it." So when a group of former teachers get together to talk about books, is there a danger of slipping into múinteoir mode and lecturing the others? Betty Hogan laughs at the suggestion. "Never – when I retired, I retired! It's something I'd be very conscious of because everybody was a teacher, but I don't think we'd allow that to happen."