Friday, 29 May 2020

More Than A Good Read - Nick Garlick

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I rarely sit and talk with friends about the books I’ve read. Not in depth. We pass tips back and forth: ‘You’ll like this’ or ‘Don’t go near that one in a lead-lined tank’. But actually sitting down together and spending 90 minute discussing the merits or defects of a particular book? Hardly ever.

And then I joined a book club.

We meet at this table once a month, in De Overburen, a cafe opposite the railway station in the Dutch town of Amersfoort. We always start off by talking about the book we’ve chosen, but it’s not long before the conversation veers off in all kinds of unexpected directions. That’s when the meetings get really interesting. Little Women prompted long discussions about how we expect stories to end. The Good Earth took us off into definitions of worldly success. We talked a lot about marriage after reading The Accidental Tourist. The Children Act got us going on the whole business of being alive.

(The one book we barely talked about at all was War and Peace. For such a massive tome, it inspired very little conversation. None of us had enjoyed it – and yes, we did all read it, all of it – and the overriding impression was of a chore accomplished. We just had a nice chat for an hour and a half.)

So the books provoke discussion. They get us thinking. And with nationalities ranging from South African to English, Indonesian to Dutch - and lately Russian – there’s a wealth of different experience to share. That’s one thing I like about the club.

The other is that it’s helped me follow a rule Neil Gaiman once offered writers: Read books you wouldn’t normally read. I think it’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. (Second only to Sinclair Lewis’ observation that the process begins by actually sitting down.) Seeing how writers outside my ‘comfort zone’ tackle a story has been enormously illuminating.

Ian McEwan has shown me how to compress narrative. Louisa May Alcott has warned me off adverbs. Tolstoy demonstrates – to me at least – that telling what happened isn’t half as effective as showing. And with apologies to Julian Barnes fans, I think there’s a limit to how oblique you can make an ending. (I still can’t work out what happened in The Only Story.)

And one last point: they’re almost as much fun on Zoom as they are in real life.

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