Diarmaid Ferriter: What we can learn from women’s book clubs

We could all benefit from women discussing how we should be governed

‘Irish women’s book clubs have their own particular flavour, often of grapes.’ File photograph: Getty Images

One night recently I was awoken from deep slumber by the sound of intense discussion and some raucous laughter outside.

While half contemplating rising to the window and telling the nuisances to shut up – it was 2.30am – I realised that the voices were familiar; my wife and her friend were saying their long goodbye having walked from their book club in the nearby house of another friend.

These book clubs for women seem to be enormously satisfying for those involved and they have mushroomed considerably.

When Supreme Court Judge Adrian Hardiman died suddenly earlier this month, there was some reflection on his various learned and spiky judgments over the years, including a 20,000 word judgment in 2009, during which he excoriated the Equality Authority's contention that Portmarnock Golf Club was a "discriminating" club under the Equal Status Act as it would not allow women to become full members.


He described googling “all-women book clubs” which he declared yielded 1,400,000 results.

Do that search today and it will yield about 80,000,000 results. Last year the New York Times suggested that about five million Americans are members of book clubs.

Rich tradition

Membership of these clubs all over the world also involves women continuing a long and rich tradition, which American sociologist

Elizabeth Long

wrote about in her 2004 book, Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life, which highlights that early women’s book clubs were critical in the establishment of public libraries.

Jenny Hartley, a professor of English at the University of Roehampton in London, surveyed 350 reading groups for her 2002 book The Reading Groups Book and also analysed a long history and the important contribution reading groups made to the self-improvement ethos of the early 19th century.

Hartley also observed that the women’s suffrage movement derived some of its initial impetus from reading groups, and that bookshops have a long tradition of “providing readers with congenial social spaces” as do the local public libraries that historically, have ensured accessibility to books even in very isolated places.

Groups also emerged out of workplaces, Hartley noting that in a British mill town in the late 1840s, “a group of girl operatives met at five o’clock in the morning to read Shakespeare together for an hour before work”.

According to Long, in an era when so many adults feel “overscheduled”, the flourishing of reading groups is a major achievement and an antidote to digital and online immersion.

But it is not just about the books. Long suggested “a remarkable number” of groups spend little time discussing the books but use them as a springboard to dissect their lives and choices and a multitude of social and political phenomenons.

I'm not therefore convinced that Sebastian Faulks was doing justice to the clubs in his 2011 book Faulks on Fiction: "There are monthly book groups that meet to discuss a novel but end up talking only about two things: the extent to which the contents are drawn from the author's life and the extent to which these in turn tally with the readers' own experience of such matters."

Useless eejits

I suspect the women also occasionally broach the subject of the useless eejits many of them are married to and, inevitably, Irish women’s book clubs have their own particular flavour, often of grapes.

One cheeky child was heard recently to refer to her mother’s book club as “Mammy’s wine club” and probably not without considerable evidence.

Hartley’s research led her to conclude that “men don’t seem to enjoy the process of discussion as much as women”, a point that underlines why we could do with an all-female Dáil to replace the forum for macho posturing we have to endure.

Women discussing how we should be governed and overseeing that governance is one experience we could all greatly benefit from.

Women’s book clubs can also lead to bigger things. Earlier this month I was lucky enough to take part in the Ennis Book Club Festival, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and is justly regarded as one of the best of the literary festivals.

It began life as a small women’s book club and can now pack Ennis’s Glór Theatre a few nights running during the festival for talks and performances.

The audience is overwhelmingly female, as is the organising committee, and the festival is all the better for that.

Closer to home, I’m sure I deserved to be woken by the recent late night din outside.

The evening after my wife’s book club adventure, as I was rushing out to yet another lecture on the consequences of the 1916 Rising, she complained of feeling a bit under the weather.

“Nothing to do with the book club last night,” I commented, unwisely and far too smugly.

“Indeed,” she replied imperiously, “enjoy your lecture. And remember, I am a 1916 widow too.”

A widow indeed, but on book club nights, quite the merry and fulfilled widow.