It’s hard to be sure whether the fashion of book/reading groups has passed. Some evidence that it has: it was 15 years ago that the Glasgow-set comedy series The Book Group screened on Channel 4 and then for only a year, the much-publicised book strands of the TV programmes of each of Oprah Winfrey and Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan have long gone and BBC Radio 2 has just ended the book club element of Simon Mayo’s programme. On the other hand, the Richard and Judy Book Club continues as a commercial website, the BBC Radio 4 monthly programme Bookclub presented by James Naughtie is still broadcasting after 20 years, and the Reading Agency charity feels that it is a strategy which is still worth supporting.
I too was once part of the book group phenomenon, for eight years between 2003 and 2010, based at my local library. My initial motivation was that it would give me the opportunity to become acquainted with some less known contemporary writers. In the event, I found myself reading only a small minority of the group’s choices, although I was never disappointed by the monthly discussions.
Book groups were sometimes ridiculed because the novels which were read were perceived to fit a stereotype. Their choices were often set in the past, not too literary in style, perhaps linked to a distinct social/political theme, certainly not too long – all of these features thus providing a sense of the books being educational as well as entertaining. My own experience was that there was some truth to this stereotype.
In addition, certain titles seemed to be recurringly popular, such as Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian; books by Ian McEwan, Tracy Chevalier, Nick Hornby, Margaret Atwood. Publishers sometimes included book group questions in their editions, appearing to see ensemble discussion as more important than individual discovery.
In addition to the enjoyable social interactions, did I gain any literary satisfaction? Well, our group’s very first read was one of my most memorable: Under the Skin by Michel Faber about the extra-terrestrial visitor to Scotland was much more chilling and engrossing than the subsequent film. The other best one was Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, set in a hillbilly poor community in the USA – the meatiness of the dialogue recalled that the same person had written the source novel for Ang Lee’s film Ride with the Devil.
A few other memories? The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón successfully wove its romantic spell partly because I had recently visited Barcelona; The Road Home by Rose Tremain gave a convincing picture of a refugee experience in modern London and Louise Welsh’s The Cutting Room an equally believable one of a Glasgow demi-monde; Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama provided more insight about the newly-arrived global cultural superstar. A more established book was Guiseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard whose complexities about 19th century Italian society I would definitely like to explore again one day.
One professional author visited us: Jonathan Falla, after we had read his Blue Poppies, set in Tibet. He talked engagingly about his work in progress, which drew on his experiences with the charity sector working in Africa, and which became Poor Mercy.
Popular books have been adapted into films since the early days of Hollywood. But it is noticeable how many book group favourites go on to be filmed, such as, from our group’s list, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky, The Ghost by Robert Harris, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows. (And there have even been films about fictional reading groups such as The Jane Austen Book Club and the current Book Club!) Are those aforementioned book club characteristics (set in the past, not too literary etc) especially alluring to movie producers? Or are these films just the latest examples of a long tradition?
Of course, with willing participants, interest groups of any sort will thrive. The book group in the aforementioned TV comedy included several members who were not native Scots. By coincidence, the Gramnet research network into migration, asylum and refugees, based at Glasgow University, has a book group which regularly reads and discusses relevant novels on their areas of interest.