“Do you like books?” asks Anna, a friendly mum who I’m chatting to in the park while our children roll, swing and wail in the background.
She doesn’t know I’m a writer, and to be honest, after six months of a new baby-and-toddler combo, I don’t know I’m a writer either. “Yes, I like books,” I say vaguely. “At least I used to, I think.”
“I’m thinking of starting a book club,” says Anna cheerily. “Do you want to join?”
“Lovely,” I say absently, wiping my baby’s snotty nose while my toddler clings to my leg and screeches for a biscuit. “Count me in.”
Actually I’m saying this to be polite. I’m fighting nappies, beakers and sandwiches, lack of sleep and lack of time. As a child and teenager I spent long hours lying on my bed lost in everything from Judy Blume to Jane Eyre, but as a mother I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit-hole. Where on earth do I get the time to READ a book? I don’t manage to brush my hair or have a shower some days, much less ...
But a few months later I’m sitting around a table in Anna’s house holding a glass of wine and talking about Alan Johnson’s childhood biography “This Boy” with a circle of chatty and intelligent readers all drawn from the surrounding Avenues. Johnson grew up in our neighbourhood in the Fifties and we’re having fun spotting landmarks and discussing how the area has changed. For the first time in a year or so I feel like my brain is connected to the world of information and ideas, and I don’t have to swivel abruptly round and shout “Quiet! Stop running!”
Yet as the months go by and new books are chosen and discussed, I realise there’s something deeper happening. Reading in a group is different to reading on your own. My experience of a book doesn’t end when I close the final page and as a result the story doesn’t remain locked and fossilised in my memory. Other people have their own ideas and through sharing it the story lives, leaps, and bounds again. There is no fixed way to interpret a book; different characters are sympathised with or disliked, an author’s voice can be either believed or distrusted, filtered through the lens of our differing experiences and background. Anya, another fellow book club member and TV producer, says “It's really interesting to see different people’s responses to the stories we read. Some of us might look at a story from a feminist perspective when others don't read the book in that way at all.” Allison, a special needs advisor, agrees. "It's really valuable being able to discuss the books and it can actually change my opinion or perspective on them." In essence, a story isn’t “mine” any longer - it is “ours.”
What is it about sharing a story that makes us feel so connected? Does it go back to our primal urge to communicate, to build meaning out of chaos, the ancient rite of sharing tales round a camp fire with the community?
For Anna the founder, it was exactly her need for a sense of community that made her want to start up a book club. “It’s made living in the crazy capital a little more like being in a village. People want to belong and feel involved in the community. If we're meeting and we're talking than that's a good thing.”
That's not to say that all communal experiences of stories are by definition positive. As a child, piano teacher Linda remembers finding reading “difficult and remember having to read out loud to the class. It was hard and deeply embarrassing, I was slower than others and the result was that it put me off reading in my junior years.” Now as an adult she reads widely and “the group has definitely encouraged me to look at authors that I would not normally look at and I am glad of this. I don't want to get stuck in a rut.”
Reading “in public” is definitely harder in some ways. Going against a majority verdict is difficult, if you love a book that is universally detested, or being the sole voice of dissent in an ocean of love. Some might find reading “to order” tricky, or finishing by a deadline when there’s so much other stuff to be done, but Allison sees this as a positive. “Although I was read to as a child, reading for me has always been a solitary activity. The book club helps me by motivating me to read, or to keep reading a book even if I don't like it.”
Personally, to my surprise, I find time to read that I didn’t realise I had, and my mind feels refreshed after half an hour’s reading rather than jaded from scrolling through Facebook and Twitter. It’s a treat rather than a workout. And it’s had a positive effect on the book eco-system too, as I try to make time to order the book of the month at the local library, although often I cheat and borrow other people’s Kindles ...
But aren't book clubs a trend long over, a bit Noughties? Well I suppose like anything, they are what you make them. Our one-year anniversary of the Avenues Book Club is coming up soon, and we plan to go out to dinner to celebrate. Over the last year we’ve read biographies, magic realism, classics, new bestsellers, and science books; we’ve made friends just round the corner and established a social and support network that is often lacking in cities today. I feel tuned in to the world and the local community in a way that I haven’t since I was a kid. As Anya puts it, “A book can draw us into surprisingly frank and intimate conversations about our own lives ... and it has made it clear to me that our own stories, and those of our friends and neighbours, are often as compelling as any story committed to print.”
As adults and parents, we have so little time to ourselves that making time to read feels like a luxury. But is it really a luxury? If some of the major paths to happiness are through connectedness to others and the sense of communication, isn’t reading something really vital and essential?
What do you think? Are you a member of a book club? Or do you prefer to read alone? Let me know!