Saturday 1 August 2020


Last month, here on ABBA, I wrote about "my" Chocolate Biscuit Book Group, and my sadness and worry for future meetings. The news is good. Four of us met one afternoon - we have decided not to meet in the evenings - and enjoyed sitting in a garden surrounded by billowing lavender hedges while we created next year's booklist. And so that story continues . . .

Coffee cake - WikipediaCoronovirus has thrown up a different problem in my other Book Group, which I will call the Lovely Cake Ladies Reading Society.  How did I end up with two groups when one would have been enough?

One wine night, I mentioned to a friend that my Chocolate Biscuit Group was going through a thin patch and might be folding.  A few months afterwards, she invited me to join the Lovely Cake Ladies.

A large cake garnished with strawberriesAs I love books, reading and booktalk, I joined that group too, and was soon revelling in how very different these two gatherings were. Could I have chosen between them? Definitely not, now or then!  
The Lovely Cake Ladies met one evening a month on a rota, in someone's comfortable house, and very enjoyable the gatherings were. We sat around a table spread with a cloth, good china, wine glasses and a spread of delicious savouries. (No bare church community room, this!)

And after half-an-hour of friendly chatter, drinks and nibbles, the Lovely Cake Book Discussion proper started. Although there was lots of laughter and a sense of relaxation, this group ran in a fairly formal style, the discussion circling around the table. Gently watched over by the Chair, each person gave their thoughts and comments on that month's title, voted on a score between 1-10, and whether they'd recommend the title. Not everyone agreed all the time, but the discussion felt cheerful and amiable. Odds and ends of information were included in the discussion too: book locations visited, authors heard at festivals, film versions, additional titles and so on. Happy stuff.

Marble cake - Wikipedia
Once the Discussion was done, that evening's Very Lovely Cake was brought in, plus tea or coffee. Now the Lovely Cake Ladies Reading Society moved on to wilder chat, local anecdotes and news about a host of topics.

These evenings, topped up with cake and very good coffee, sent me home with my head buzzing and unable to sleep for hours. To an introverted writer, living an almost solitary life, the magical meetings of the Lovely Cake Reading Society brought welcome exuberance.

And then came Covid. 
For various valid reasons, the Lovely Cake Reading Society could not meet up, nor we were able to move on to Zoom. People, it was decided, would share their thoughts on the month's given book through Whatsapp or by email.  

And this, to me, was where the once-easy book discussion started working differently - and made me wonder whether certain factors affected reader's responses to books more generally. 

Location, location!  
Devil's food cake - WikipediaWith the Lovely Cake Ladies no longer in one room, the once-familiar group body language was missing. 

When we met, that physical language might moderate how strongly we spoke. Now we could not tell by posture or expression whether someone else enjoyed a particular title or not.  Before, we might identify when not press a point, or what toleave out so another could take their turn, or remember that an issue was close to home for another member.  Now, as a group, we were responding blindly, and in a random order, unable to see faces. Who will speak next into the void? Who will be happy to?

So now I'm wondering whether, when classes, teachers, librarians, editors or even reviewers make decisions about books, their responses are affected their reading of the "physical language" of that group? Or by people's roles within that group on that occasion? Does a certain group mood affect the response to a book? A remembered social event make a book a more valued reading experience? Is that why we like and need book events and miss book launches?

 Word Power
Dundee cake - WikipediaAnother difference is that the Lovely Cake Ladies now respond in writing, not speaking with their own personal notes as a reminder. Yet not everyone enjoys putting words down, especially on a screen, orhave the patience for it. Nor does everyone have the same amount of time free for writing or a quiet space.
Is it possible that, without that real-world meeting, some members might feel their voice isn't heard? That they aren't as valuable as the others? Who's in the room and who isn't? How about children trying to cope in those home-school situations where responses have to be written down rather than spoken?

Moreover, language itself creates another social difficulty. What's the right register for this group? What is the right writing tone? How long and thorough should one be, when one can't see the bored faces? How chatty? How brief? Until the next response pops up, how can one judge if the "voice" is right when you can't see people's faces? Besides, for many people, writing about something is longer and harder work than face to face talking and listening, and the Lovely Cake Ladies Reading Society was all about enjoyment and friendly support.

Whose book is it?
Last, there's the niggly matter of the books themselves. Before Covid, the Lovely Cake Ladies obtained a set of books in from the local library. The copies were shared out and gathered back, no matter what people thought of the title. If there weren't enough, copies were handed round or personal copies loaned out and the system was working quite well.

Cake - WikipediaNow, during lockdown, readers had to supply their own copies, At first this seemed fine but some of the pre-chosen titles proved less than popular.

There was the much-hyped feminist comic novel that wasn't; the clunky self-published crime mystery that damages the standing of self-publication everywhere and, sadly, a short, brilliant noir novel set in rural backwoods that some people violently hate. 

Before, with book-loans, one just felt miffed at wasting time. Now, there's real annoyance creeping into people's reactions, which is worrying.
All the niggling and annoyance suggests to me that one shouldn't underestimate the usefulness of  widely stocked libraries (whether in schools or communities)  as sources for browsing, borrowing and widening a reader's experience and responses.  And I know in many places, it is too late and may yet become too late.


Alas, the empty plate!
Plate (dishware) - WikipediaNow, that I've raised all these questions about the Lovely Cake Ladies method of "meeting-but-not-meeting" have raised, I am truly and selfishly worried about how and if this glorious group will survive. There are so many wonderful people that I'm missing right now.

Will there be books one day, and places to meet, and even lovely cake to eat? 
And honey still for tea?
I do hope so.

Penny Dolan

ps But if my ABBA mutter this month is as powerful as my ABBA mutter last month, I should feel hopeful already.

1 comment:

Anne Booth said...

That sounds such a lovely group - I wish I could join! I do have a problem with marking a book out of 10 though - I always feel very defensive of the authors who get low scores. Years ago I had to leave a long established group I was invited to join. I left after only a couple of meetings ,because they were so scathing of other people's work, and I wanted to say look - they actually finished a book and got it published - that deserves more than 1 out of 10! I am sure yours is kinder. I think that it is hard to meet online when you are used to meeting indoors and eating cake, but hopefully it won't be too long until you meet again xx And lovely to read about the other group meeting in a garden with billowing lavender!