What’s the first rule of book club? Wine, of course, but there are others

The Ennis Book Club Festival is 10 years old. Freya McClements talks to its founders and other book clubs about what goes on between the covers

 

I was once, briefly, a member of a book club.

It began, as so many doomed ventures do, over lunch with colleagues at the local newspaper where I worked at the time. We’d been discussing a book most of us had read and enjoyed, and suddenly the idea was born.

“Why don’t we form a book club?”

Our plan was simple – we’d take it in turns to pick the book, then meet once a month in the pub next door during our lunch break. Unfortunately our (nameless) club only survived a couple of sessions and a trip to the cinema before family and work commitments overtook it, but it’s that same desire to share the experience of reading that has seen book clubs formed just about everywhere.

“These days a book club can be anything from the formal book club at your local library, to a group of friends just coming together,” explains Emer O’Connell, the chairperson of the Ennis Book Club Festival.

“They don’t have to be along traditional lines – there are online book clubs, radio and television book clubs, even the Irish Times Book Club.”

Unsurprisingly, the festival itself grew out of a book club.

“There were 10 of us and we used to meet in each other’s houses in Ennis,” says one of the founders, Frances O’Gorman. “We would also do occasional things, like taking a trip to the cinema if a film based on a book had come out. In our last session, before our summer break, we’d usually have music and food.”

It was at one of their regular meetings that the idea emerged.

“An arts festival in Ennis had just ended, and we were discussing this, and we thought there was an opportunity because we knew there would be a ready-made audience for an actual book club festival because there are so many book clubs.

“Looking back on it now, I’d say we were completely mad, because we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” laughs O’Gorman.

Their instinct was proved right – the festival this year celebrated its tenth anniversary, and welcomes many book clubs back year after year.

Among them is the wonderfully-named Timshel Book Club (the group had just finished East of Eden).

Like many book clubs, the “Timshelettes” have evolved their own way of working, and it seems that this bespoke approach is key to the success of many longstanding clubs.

“We meet in each other’s homes with the person who chose the book being discussed acting as the host on the night,” says Emily O’Dwyer.

“We have no stated rules, though a natural order has emerged. It is very rare that someone does not read the book. In fact we can get shirty with someone who has no excuse in that regard, as the whole point of the group is the books.

“Whilst we have become extremely close socially, the books are the glue and, if you don’t read the book, it’s almost as if you’re disrespecting the group.”

Some clubs are stricter than others.

Margaret O’Brien’s book club in Quin, Co Clare, operates a points system – “we mark each book out of five and record it in our book club book, plus comments” – while at the BBC (Belfast Book Club) “we all count to three and put our fingers out to score the book”.

“This prevents any changing as you go round, such as when you wanted to give it a two and then feel stupid because everyone seems to be giving it an eight,” explains member Zoe Grox.

Another theme which emerges, perhaps unsurprisingly, is wine.

“Book club without wine would be Heathcliff without Cathy, Oscar minus Lucinda, Holden without his ducks in Central Park,” says Helen McClements.

Her book club, in Belfast, has “few rules – but a few works well. The host gets to choose the next book. They may have a selection from which to choose, and the majority may then be asked to decide.

“Thankfully reading the book is not a pre-requisite to coming along, although it is helpful. But if you aren’t finished and don’t want a spoiler, stay at home. Someone will inevitably drink too much and let it slip anyway.”

While the books may be the “glue”, as O’Dwyer puts it, it is the social connections created by the books that seem to make a good book club stick together.

“Sometimes we spend as long discussing parish and family events as we do the book,” acknowledges Mary Quealy, from the Quin & District Book Club (incredibly, the village has at least three book clubs).

Margaret O’Brien’s book club also has an account in the local credit union and the group has been to Lisbon, Kerry and Majorca. “We also have a lottery syndicate and we live in hope for the day we win more than a scratchcard,” she tells me.

Some book clubs have survived bad news as well as good. Siobhán O’Sullivan is a member of a Cork-based book club which lost one of its members, Geraldine Desmond, to illness.

“Meeting her children at the funeral for the first time I was so happy to learn of how much she loved the book club and how she talked about it incessantly. At her funeral, one of her favourite books, Pride and Prejudice, was brought up the altar in memory of our wonderful evenings.”

It seems that the very act of meeting, books in hand, to share our views and opinions and argue over the bits we loved and the bits we didn’t, fulfils for many people that very basic human need to find a connection with, and the companionship of, like-minded individuals.

“If you go back to the 1800s, women used to read to one another before the mill opened, or they would read at the well before getting water,” says Frances O’Gorman. “It’s that love of language, of words, of telling stories to one another, that ties people together.

“Book clubs are about the literary element, and about educating yourself, but they’re also about the social side and the connections people make with each other. In that sense, it’s almost like therapy.

“There’s a quote we borrowed from Mark Twain to use as the motto of the book club festival,” explains O’Gorman. “Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience – that’s what a good book club should be.

“You read the book, you have a good discussion about it, and you go away feeling satisfied.”

How do Ireland’s many book clubs actually work? Where do they meet, and when? Who picks the books? And just how many book clubs are also wine club? Here, in their own words, are the stories of Ireland’s book clubs.

NAME: UNNAMED

LOCATION: CORK CITY

MEMBER: SIOBHÁN O’SULLIVAN

“Our book club has been running a year now and it has grown so big, we have had to turn away members. We meet every 3 to 4 weeks and we rotate the hosting. We started the book club as a number of us at the beginning worked in the same place, Cork Institute of Technology, and never got to meet up. We all loved reading but felt we never read enough. Some of the members never met before and now we are like a bunch of good old friends.

“Some of our members are more conscientious then others as they arrive with folder in hand, have the book immensely highlighted and have quotes and post its book marked throughout. Those of us with Kindles are embarrassingly simple in comparison to the hard book readers. We started off reading one book every three weeks and now we have extended that to three books (this month we are reading John Steinbeck, John Le Carré and Graham Greene). We make the event a social night too with lots of lovely wine, cheeses and crackers. Whoever is hosting the night chooses the books, and then the read books are donated to a charity. We are trying to read new best sellers as well as the classic books. We have even ventured into having a reading of a short story and/or poem a part of the evening.

“The highlight of our year was attending the Book Club Festival in Ennis. We prepared for it by reading the books beforehand and then attended the events themselves. It was a very special event for us as one of our members, Geraldine Desmond, has since died. She loved the book club as it helped her mind escape from her illness. Meeting her children at the funeral for the first time I were so happy to learn of how much she loved the book club and how she talked about it incessantly. At her funeral one of her favourite books, Pride and Prejudice, was brought up to the altar in memory of our wonderful evenings.

“When I tell people about the book club the response is usually the same - where do you get the time to read three books a month? But our lives have all been enriched since starting the book club and losing Geraldine has made us much closer as a group.”

NAME: THE CONNEMARA LITERARY SOCIETY

LOCATION: CONNEMARA

MEMBER: LEILA Ní CATHMHAOIL

“You may wonder at the grandiose title. Well, when I first thought of setting up a book club there were so many already that I thought I wouldn’t get any takers if I just said I was starting a book club so I came up with a name that piqued people’s interest.

We started in 2013. Generally we have seven to nine members at each gathering, men and women. We rotate around three to four houses and meet every six weeks. We don’t stop in the summer we just take a longer break, eight weeks perhaps, and at the gathering before the long break we have food and bring friends or partners so it becomes more of a party.

“In choosing a book we have tried different methods: the host decides, which worked for a while; everyone brings a suggestion and the titles are put into a hat and we draw one out, fingers crossed; or we look at the book prize lists and discuss which one might be worth a try. We also look at book reviews in newspapers. Sometimes in our enthusiasm we chose two books. We have had a few clangers but all in all we do ok.”

NAME: UNNAMED

LOCATION: BELFAST

MEMBER: HELEN McCLEMENTS

“We generally meet on a 6 weekly basis, on a rotational basis at each other’s houses. We all live in and around Belfast, and our ages range between 30 and 70. We’re mostly women, although one valiant chap does come along from time to time. We have a rather fabulous mother and her two daughters, and 3 Helens, which can lead to a little confusion after a few drinks.

Few rules apply, but a few work well. The host gets to choose the next book - they may have a selection from which to choose, in which case the majority may then be asked to decide. Thankfully, reading the book is not a prerequisite to coming along, although it is of course helpful. If you aren’t finished and don’t want a spoiler, stay at home. Someone will inevitably drink too much and let it slip anyway.

We used to get a bit carried away as regards the catering, until our founding member demanded a stop to it. Now it’s biscuits and cheese, maybe an olive or crisp. And yes, of course, copious amounts of wine. Book group without wine would be Heathcliff without Cathy; Oscar minus Lucinda, Holden without his ducks in Central Park.

Book group has seriously enriched my life. From our retired members telling us what not to miss at the Edinburgh festival or how to house swap successfully, or my peers, who instruct me how to function with my toddlers after a bottle of red the night before, thank you all, I owe you a lot.”

NAME: QUIN & DISTRICT BOOK CLUB

LOCATION: QUIN, CO. CLARE

MEMBER: MARY QUEALY

“We were formed 11 years ago by my friend Josephine Hassett. She said she read lots of books but could never remember the names or authors, so she thought if she belonged to a book club and discussed what she read she would get more benefit from her reading.

We meet every month and take it in turns to host the meeting in our houses. The host chooses the book for the following month. That gets thrown out of kilter from time to time as we go to a restaurant in December and again in June when we finish for the summer, starting back in September. We have some fruit/nibbles and a glass of wine but no cooking!

I have learned something about myself in that I almost always choose non-fiction, my last choice being Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer. We all agree that we like the fact that we have to read something we wouldn’t normally even look at.

It’s a real social occasion and sometimes we spend as long discussing parish events/family events as we do the book. We are good friends now and look forward to meeting each other every month.

It puts gentle pressure on us to read and so gives us time for ourselves and has a positive effect on our lives.”

NAME: TIMSHEL BOOK CLUB

LOCATION: ENNIS, CO CLARE

MEMBER: EMILY O’DWYER

“I’m part of a book club here in Ennis that was formed 6 years ago. A friend who had mooted the idea for a while was unexpectedly laid off and decided to just go for it. She gathered four others and asked us all to bring along one other person so a 10-person group was formed of people who hadn’t known each other beforehand.

“We call ourselves the Timshel Book Club as we had just read East of Eden and were discussing it on the same night we felt we needed a name. We have no stated rules though a natural order has emerged. It is very rare that someone does not read the book for example. In fact we can get shirty with someone who has no excuse in that regard as the whole point of the group is the books. Whilst we have become extremely close socially, the books are the glue and if you don’t read the book it’s almost as if you’re disrespecting the group.

“We’ve read fiction, non-fiction, autobiographies, travel books, classics, chic lit and a lot of current fiction. We’ve attended Ennis Book Club Festival as a group or sub groups every year since we started and even travelled to IMMA to see the Frieda Kahlo exhibition after reading The Lacuna.

We’ve been through births, deaths, marriages, personal and professional upheavals and all manner of situations in between and have developed a bond that will last, all thanks to a shared love of books. “We all boast about our book club and refer to each other as Timshelettes.”

NAME: BBC (BELFAST BOOK CLUB)

LOCATION: BELFAST

MEMBER: ZOE GROX

“We usually meet every six weeks to two months in the Errigle Inn pub on the Ormeau Road in Belfast. We rotate who chooses the book each time.

When we arrive at book club we count to three and all put our fingers out to score the book. This prevents any changing as you go round, when you wanted to give it a two and then feel stupid because everyone else seems to be going for eights. It’s an honest vote!

Sometimes we argue, which is great, and sometimes the other people in the pub stare at us weirdly for all having the same book in front of us.

We all find it a good way of encouraging us to read books and not our phones. It’s also a chance to flex some of this education that we all have but never use!”

NAME: THE ECLECTIC MUSE AND MUSIC CLUB

LOCATION: DUBLIN

MEMBER: PATRICIA COLEMAN

“Our book club started in 1998 and is still going strong with seven members, four men and three women.

We read a wide range of material and also listen to music, read poetry and sometimes sing, particularly if relevant to the reading material.

We generally meet once a month and host in turn in our own homes, offering snacks, supper and wine. We all live in Dublin now but are originally from Kerry, Tipperary, Offaly, Mayo, Boston, Cardiff and Holland.

We sometimes arrange to go to readings or concerts together, so all in all being a part of this book club is wonderful. I love it!”

NAME: UNNAMED

LOCATION: QUIN, CO. CLARE

MEMBER: MARGARET O’BRIEN

“I am a member of a book club based (loosely) in the village of Quin in County Clare. At one time the village had four book clubs - three of those are still in existence. Our book club has been on the go around 10 years. We meet once a month at each other’s houses on a rota basis, with wine and nibbles the order of the day.

“We are quite strict about reading the book, although allowances are made. We mark each book out of 5 and record it in our book club book, plus comments - it’s amazing how quickly we forget what we read, so this acts as a prompt!

“Our group comprises a Montessori teacher, a management consultant, an engineer, a journalist, an accountant, a nurse and sales rep, ranging in ages from 42 - 53, so we’re quite a diverse bunch.

“We argue vigorously about the book and other things and park it on the night. We also laugh a lot. We all agree that while we comprise quite strong opinionated characters, we certainly don’t hold back, we never personalise the argument and there are no repercussions or reverberations.

We save as a group in the local credit union and go away on trips, every couple of years. In 2013 it was Lisbon, last year it was Banna in Kerry and we are just back from Deia, Majorca. Not everyone comes on every trip - and there’s no pressure to save - we throw in whatever we can afford (or nothing) into a kitty at each club meeting and when the time comes to go away we have the flight and hotel costs covered. We also have a lottery syndicate and we live in hope for the day we win more than a scratch card!”

NAME: LIBRARY BOOK CLUB

LOCATION: ENNIS, CO. CLARE

MEMBER: MARY HENCHY

“I’m a member of one of the book clubs organised by Ennis library. There are roughly ten members, and we meet once a month. We were all strangers to each other at the start but now I consider the other members as friends.

“We have a list of books compiled by one of our members and are slowly making our way through it. These are books that the library would have multiple copies of, so we tell them a month in advance which one we have picked and they gather up the copies for us. It is a fantastic service.

People don’t always read the book (it might not be to their taste) or they may not have it finished on time but they still show up at the meeting. We discuss the book for a while but invariable we move on to something else. We are all women and we all love reading but there the similarity ends as we vary in age, occupation, interests, politics and so on. At Christmas and when we finish up for the summer we go for a meal together - there’s a nice restaurant near the library.”

NAME: TOMMY’S BOOK CLUB

LOCATION: DUBLIN

MEMBER: MARY A COFFEY

“Our book club is named after one of the founders, Thomasina Waghorne, who sadly passed away some years ago. She started the book club with her friend Irene Dixon and each invited a couple of friends, then asked them to also invite a friend so that it wouldn’t be a group which already knew each other well. We have been in existence for about 20 years at this stage and have lost and gained members over that period.

“We meet on the second Thursday of every month and currently have 11 members. We meet in each other’s houses in rotation and have a strict tea and biscuits rule with two dinners one at Christmas and at the end of the ‘season’ in the summer where we all contribute to the festivities.

“We read a wide range of books and try to cover all the broad areas. In March/April each member suggests three or four books and then at the last meeting we vote for the twelve we will read over the year. At our meetings the book is discussed with everyone giving their opinion and we then vote. We record our meetings and the outcome and it is interesting sometimes to look back.

“We keep going because everyone likes to read and the controversies are sometimes very dynamic but interesting and entertaining. Over the years our friendship has also grown stronger over the years. The book club is one of the best things I am involved in as I get to read books I wouldn’t have otherwise read, to hear the opinions of the other participants is very stimulating and the social aspect is great.”

NAME: FOYLE U3A BOOK CLUB

LOCATION: DERRY CITY

MEMBER: NANCE CONNOLLY (contributed by her daughter Maeve Connolly)

“My Mammy, Nance Connolly, aged 87, was in a book club for over ten years which had an average age of 80! They worked really hard and shared such a stunning array of books. Each month someone would lead the group by choosing a book and leading the discussion. They made very detailed notes and had lively and sometimes heated discussions. But most of all they were great friends and had an annual dinner to celebrate their union.

“It kept my mother so alert and articulate. She’s still an avid reader and crossword doer! I myself am indebted to them as I got all her books already tried and tested.”

NAME: BOOKS FIZZ

LOCATION: LIMERICK/CLARE

MEMBER: CATHERINE HOGAN

“Books Fizz. That’s us, an inter-county bevy of seven gals from Limerick and Clare who for the past seven years have been combining books and bubbles every month.

We analyse, criticise, eulogise, proselytise and simply enjoy the company of friends and the latest book to come on our radar. Our reading choice depends on the host, and we have enjoyed, and at times been underwhelmed by, every literary genre, from classics to comedy, drama to fantasy, action to crime, short stories to history, with the odd psychological thriller thrown in.

One of our members has recently published a novel, Twisted River. Our literary circle has spawned a writer - and with a published author now in our midst, Books Fizz is popping the corks!”

NAME: ANTONIA’S BOOKSTORE BOOK CLUB

LOCATION: TRIM, CO MEATH

MEMBER: AILEEN WYNNE

“We have about ten members and meet monthly in the bookstore. It runs a number of book clubs for children and many adults were interested, so the wonderful staff members Antonia, Ciara and Helen obliged.

“Our only limitation is that we read paperback fiction, but in reality it means that we read all sorts of books. In fact it means we read all sorts of books, and it’s a great way to find books that you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up.

“Helen picks around 4 titles each month - we check that they’re available on audiobook (as one of our members is visually impaired) to ensure all our members can read it, then vote on the choices. Members of the book club can put forward books and authors to be included on the choices list so everyone is involved.

“I’d recommend book clubs to anyone - I was afraid I wouldn’t have the time to read the books, but it’s brought some great new authors to my attention and if I can’t finish the book in time for the meeting I’ve found it’s not the end of the world!”

Freya McClements is a writer, arts journalist and failed member of a book club

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