Wednesday 1 July 2020

PERSISTING: The Story of A Book Group by Penny Dolan

During lockdown - surely the most overused opening right now? -  some bookish things changed in my life. Today I want to write about one of these ordinary, everywhere but special groups that many of you may belong or have belonged to - or not belonged to because of your own reading preferences.  Here's my story:

The Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* started years ago as a staff-led, after-hours monthly meeting at the local Waterstones bookshop. The choice slanted towards the next highly promoted title which could be interesting but, even with discount, an expensive obligation if you didn't like the book quite that much. Sometimes, if the choice was a film-tie-in paperback - the kind where actors appear on the front cover - you might have a plainer copy already on the shelf at home. Lucky you! 

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaHowever, within a year,  both the two staff "minders" had moved to bigger, better branches and nobody wanted the unpaid responsibility of after-hours opening.  Yet people persisted. 

The bookgroup met around eight, in one of the various large bars of local hotels and pubs in town. The "readers" increased, spreading convivially out across the bar but that meant the discussion broke up into small cliques. The long hot summer took away several members and then the dark winter months shrank the group even further.  

What could be done? We, a few remaining members, persisted. In an economical mode.

We rented a small, cheap church community-room opposite the local library, whose only free slot was from quarter-past-six to quarter-past-seven, between church meetings and music rehearsals.

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaHappily, this odd time worked well for the now all-female group: it fitted easily between work and home, was brief enough for people with caring responsibilities and late night transport was no longer a difficulty. 

The timing might suggest a cocktail hour but we opted for minimum refreshments: tea or coffee and simple chocolate biscuits. We used our sixty minutes for small fragments of news and lots of book talk. Over the years, people came and went - house moves, work moves, family changes - but still the book group was there, persisting.

We also got round the book title problem. We subscribed - like twenty more local book groups - to our library's book group loan scheme. Through this excellent scheme, we could collect multiple copies of one title from central stock just before one meeting and delivered the pile back again in a months time. This quantity of borrowed books also explains publishing's great passion for creating popular Book Group titles and adding those annoying Talking Points pages at the end of novels.  

We could choose our own titles too: each year, during an enjoyable June meeting, we created a reading list that spread across a wide range of genres and interests and all was satisfactory. Each month, the Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* continued meeting.

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaThen came the cuts. Our town library - one of the original Carnegie libraries - survived the county wide cuts but with a thinned-out staff, service and stock and eventually with an adult education service moving into the building as well. Our supply of monthly Book Group copies grew erratic,  but we persisted. 

We devised a cunning book list, suggesting a choice of three titles per month for the librarian and for a while,  it worked. The librarian ordered in whichever one of the three titles was in greatest stock.

We usually received a mix of hardback, paperback, large print and audio-cd versions so there were often polite discussions about people's preferred formats:
hardback for best design and book feel but heavy to read in bed;
paperback was useful unless the font was tiny; 
large print was enjoyed for easy reading but never (to my mind) beautiful 
while audio was great for listening  but not as speedy as the written word if you were in a rush
We were going well, with titles happily lined up to see us through late spring and early summer.

And then came Covid. 

That was it.  After more than a decade, our small but sociable hour had gone. Some people did not want to commit to reading anything, let alone thinking about it.  Some were involved with shielding or isolating or coping with changes to family arrangements. Some did not want to think beyond the "now" moment, either,  even though they knew it was there.  Some were dealing with all of these and all reactions were sensible and understandable.

Clearly, what many people had liked about the book group was the sociability, the chance to be together with the books as a focus. Maybe even more than they liked the books themselves? An interesting thought.

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaAnyway,with the library closed its doors, our monthly title no longer mattered a jot, nor among the general awfulness. did the missing meeting matter. What clearly did matter was that not everyone in the group liked using modern technology to the same degree. There would be no Zoom meetings for the Chocolate Biscuit Book Group.*. 

Instead, gradually, we've been sending the group our own email (short or long) each month, keeping in touch with oddments of news or thoughts about any screen stuff seen, or gardens or anything. Just saying hello, really. And, occasionally, some of us mention book titles we've read.  Truly, it's about the people, not the pages.

However, now there's been news of libraries re-opening, but not as we knew them.

Our library, like others, will open in a limited, phased way sometime in July, mainly for the  return of books and the collection of orders; later in the summer, people will be allowed in to use the computer screens . . . 

Chocolate biscuit - WikipediaBut the essential library pleasure of idle browsing is a long long way away, and what will the state of the book stock be by then? Remembering that in the past, library books were thought to spread disease, will anyone in the book want to borrow books as before? Or will it all be e-book loans?

Should the Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* even try to make a new reading list?

Or plan to meet again sometime in the future?

And, after all these years, is persisting even possible for Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* ?

As for your own Book Groups? How are they going?  How are they working?

Penny Dolan

ps The Chocolate Biscuit Book Group* is a fictitious name. But somehow I'm feeling rather peckish right now.


Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting to read this. My book group doesn't order from the library; we found it became difficult to get enough copies of the book we had chosen. So we buy our own. Choosing titles can be a bit of a headache, though.

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this, Penny - maybe this time next year book groups will have evolved into ... ?

Ann Darnton said...

This describes my own experience almost precisely. Given the fact that we used to meet in a room where it was almost impossible to keep 10 cm distance let alone 2 m or 1 m plus, whatever that might mean, I really can’t see a time ahead when we’re going to be able to get back together again.

Penny Dolan said...

Ann, yes. At the moment the outcome is looking rather sad, not only for your group and my group but for many other book groups, I suspect, not only in the UK. It can be so easy for small friendships to drift out of reach once the purpose of a group has gone.

Joan, not sure what the future holds. Hadn't meant to write a melancholy post but somehow that's how it goes.

Sue, this particular book group - where I'm involved in some of the admin - has/had an annual planning meeting to determine books for the year.

People were supposed to come to it with about three or even four suggestions which we'd all chat about and avoid listing two novels that seemed similar. There was obviously some duplication of title choices when we met, but generally we came out with a good list which included occasional non-fiction or memoir as well as novels, and each book chosen has/had someone nominated to start the discussion too.

Thanks for your responses.

Pippa Goodhart said...

Our group, which started as a group of mums who knew each other from the school gates and wanted to keep in touch as children moved into secondary educational independence, morphed into meeting in each other's houses (some with more room than others), so that's had to stop for now. But all but one of us meet on zoom to discuss the appointed book. Not the same. No pudding supplied by a host for one thing! But its still good, and a promise of proper getting together when that becomes possible again.

Anne Booth said...

I loved this -and I think that The Chocolate Biscuit Book Group is itself a lovely title for a book group novel! I am so sorry about the disruption - but I still think and hope you will persist. You will still read and love books and need and want to share that love - maybe there can be some new ways and formats to explore - online or offline - during this difficult bit, but you persisted before and -I am sure you can find a way. Maybe it will be via zoom or email or youtube or post cards or WhatsApp or facebook or socially distanced park meetings...I don't know what exactly - but I think we must persist in these things which bring us joy and I hope you can keep going in some new ways until things return to normal. xx

Mary Hoffman said...

My book group missed one month then moved to Zoom. We were a wine and nibbles group rather than a tea and biscuits kind but now we meet at 3pm and our host (the person who organises us all and sends out the emails) has a paid for account, so we aren't limited to 40 minutes.Earlier I had run a book group myself but we stopped when the library wanted to choose the titles of which they had multiple copies. In the new group we buy paperbacks or ebooks.

Zoom seems to work pretty well for us. The person who has chosen the book speaks first, with a summary, something about the author and a critical opinion. We then all take turns to say what we think before the conversation becomes more general, still about the book.

Thus we have survived Covid and have made up for the missed month by having a meeting in August.

Penny Dolan said...

Hello again! I did enjoy hearing about all your book groups, with and without puddings, on Zoom and off. The mix of people and the history of any book group plays such a part in how it operates. I am going to post about my other, very different book group, and the effect of moving online.

Thank you for any encouraging or cheering words. I was feeling more than a little sad at all the unseen damage being done by Covid to small social groupings and structures, on top of the damage already done to libraries by County and Government underfunding and closures - and then those blithe statements about opening schools in libraries, ha ha!

Meanwhile, here is today's special news about the Chocolate Biscuit Book Group. Ta da!

The totally admirable fellow-organiser rang me today just as I was about to get in touch with her. She too had been thinking.

As she lives alone, and has a large dining room, she suggested our small group could meet there (in a fairly distanced way) during the afternoon (not evening) beginning with our mid-July Book List Planning Meeting.

So I've drafted the necessary email and sent it to her for approval. Then it will go out to the others and we'll see what the response is to her idea of moving the meeting in house.

So, dear ABBA friends, the Chocolate Biscuit Book Group is STILL persisting.