Getting stuck into a meeting of minds


Phrases such as "book club" and "reading group" can conjure up images of nerdy literature students wearing thick glasses and debating Ulysses in minute detail. But a quiet reading revolution is taking place to counter this stereotype.

Once a month, dozens of people throughout the country meet in private homes or pubs to discuss books over dinner, wine or a pint. These groups are growing in popularity, not because they're being promoted by book stores or libraries, but simply because people have been missing reading for pleasure.

"People are so busy today that reading takes a back seat, the book club got me back into reading regularly," says American Amy Seigenthaler, founder of a Dublin-based book club.

Four years ago, Seigenthaler moved to Ireland to work as special assistant to American ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith. As a way to meet people and get to know others better, she decided to start a book club similar to one she had belonged to in Boston. "When I came over here it just seemed natural to start up a club again - particularly because I was new to the country. I met a lot of different people that I liked and this was a nice venue for us to get together," she says. The social aspect is an important element in the rising popularity of book clubs in cities. "In the past, people used to meet each other in their neighbourhoods and churches. The communities were more close-knit. Now, society is more transient and people are looking for ways to meet those interested in what they're interested in," Seigenthaler explains.

Journalist Emma Smith from Stoneybatter in Dublin began a book club a year ago. "I started it with a friend because we wanted to do something different in the evenings, rather than go to the pub."

The desire for lively discussion why they formed a book club rather than another social club. "We wanted something that stimulated our intellect a little bit. As you get older you can get stuck in a rut and may talk about babies or relationships all the time," she says. These clubs appeal to both men and women. "I think it's good for women to get together but I feel men would add another dimension, they would read other books," Smith adds.

In 1992, John MacMonagle, a graphic designer from Cork, began the Index Circle Book Club.

"I started it completely out of necessity because I was a great reader and then when I left college I gradually stopped reading. I said if I read one book a month, wouldn't it be a great achievement," he says. He made the decision in a Cork pub and the book club, with both male and female members, has met there ever since.

Group dynamics are an important consideration when forming a club and numbers usually range from eight to 12 people.

"We kept the number at 10 which is a manageable size - it's big enough so if some don't come you still have enough for a discussion, but not too big that people feel overpowered and not part of a group," Seigenthaler says.

Smith, meanwhile, makes the point that "it's good to get a mix of people, because usually a group of friends has similar views".

Book club structures vary, with some opting for very formal arrangements, including club constitutions and a board. Others have no formality except the monthly meeting.

The Index Book Circle meets the last Monday of every month. "It's quite structured. We have a president and people must say why they've nominated the book," John MacMonagle says.

Some groups choose to record individual opinions on books. "We vote on the book out of 10 for readability, content and plot. People have great fun with voting, it's a bit like Eurovision," he says.

Even the most informal groups need standard procedures. "We're very informal but I do think in order to keep it going, you have to have a few people willing to phone around to arrange the meetings," says Smith. Food and drink are sometimes an added attraction. Members of Seigenthaler's book club, for instance, provide a meal when hosting the meeting.

Books are chosen either in rotation or by the person hosting the meeting. Choices vary from light novels to the classics, but many bring about debate on social problems.

"The books are more of a talking point for larger discussions on other topics. We might start off on a book about the American South and end up with a discussion on travellers in Ireland. It is a natural conversational progression," says Seigenthaler. The need to discuss issues in an informal setting is not new. The "salon" was a popular social outlet during the Romantic Age in France. Writers, artists and intellectuals met in private homes to discuss professional and social problems.

Today's "salons" are more democratic in that they represent a wider variety of professions. Members in the three groups interviewed range from architects and designers to business consultants and medical practitioners.

Seigenthaler believes book clubs are a response to the superficiality of the electronic age.

"I do think there's a possibility that with the influx of technology, people may feel a need to participate in something that's very basic, like reading, having a meal and talking."