Thursday, 16 April 2015

Tales Round A Camp Fire: The Story of the Avenues Book Club by Tess Berry-Hart

“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!


Elen C said...

I'm in a fairly new book club, and I've really enjoyed the experience. Mostly because I've read books that I would never have picked up normally. Mostly I read children or YA, but to a certain extent that feels like work (even if I love the book!); I can't turn off my critical reader. But for adult books, that reader shuts up for a bit. I love it!

Anonymous said...

I've never been in a book club, mostly because I don't think I'd manage to read anything on time. This one looks fun though

Shirley Webster said...

I love book clubs and i'm in about five! I notice that the flavour changes from club to club depending on who's there, one of them is just factual and science books, and one of them is more a poetry group. I do agree that I read far more diversely than i would normally which can only be a good thing!

Shuka Diyana said...

I think book clubs are important because it get s ppl offline and talking IRL. Which is funny bcos I found this site online, lol. But its important to talk in person and these days I think ppl spend too much time online and forget how to speak to other ppl properly.

Tess Berry-Hart said...

Thanks for all your comments and I'm glad to see book clubs still thriving! I do think that as long as there are people and books in the world we will always need to reach out and communicate in whatever means we have!

Emma Barnes said...

This lovely post reminds me that I have a book to read for my Book Club...instead of the Raymond Chandler crime noir binge I've been indulging in for the last few days!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

I belonged to various bookclubs since the 70's and loved it. We became very closely bonded... trusting each other with our own opinions even if they differed vastly from the majority. And living through various members mastectomies, divorces and deaths but never becoming an agony aunts club.

We chose books freely so that not everyone had to read the same book each mouth. We would bring 8 books on appro and then about 3 to 5 would be selected by the group and put into our 'library' of books for the year until it was our turn again and then the books we'd bought the previous year were handed back to us.

It meant we were buying books and supporting writers :) Oddly where I live now in the centre of London I haven't found or started a bookclub. Maybe bookclubs ARE for people who have small children and need time out.

Penny Dolan said...

I agree it gives you an interesting view of how people read, Tess. I'm in two and they are so different in books and in mood. One's slightly austere, an hour in a church community room, with tea and a biscuit. The other is in people's homes with lots of nibbles and chat. Even so, both are very nice groups. Sometimes, when the meetings are close together, it's a rush to get both books read in time. But the obligation also makes me value the books that are just my own private choice. Saw a great quote on cover of a current book I am not at all keen on - "I can't stop thinking about this book." Exactly.