By Eliza Berlage
There is, perhaps, a common perception that a book club is about more drinking and less thinking. But while a glass of wine may be a social lubricant, the enduring popularity of the book club has more body to it than a robust red.
Writer Alexandra Neill and her friends started a book club as an opportunity to catch up more regularly. Accompanied by wine and cheese, she found it’s a structured way of getting together.
“We started with a focus on feminist books or stuff by female writers but we don’t really have a theme. It’s pretty democratic, we select whatever people suggest,” she says.
Despite often critiquing a book to the point of hating it, Ms Neill says her love of English is validated by the club.
“I like reading with people because you get a lot more enjoyment out of the text. You have deep discussions,” she says.
While book clubs are a popular way of staying in contact with friends, they’re also a good way to make news ones. When Belinda Wynn, a nurse in a general medical practice, was invited by a work colleague to join a book club, she soon found herself connected to a network of great new friends as well as great books.
“My book club friends are different to the people I’d normally be in contact with through work or my children. They’re an incredibly supportive bunch and we’ve become really close.
“Aside from discussing texts, we pool our funds for a trip away at the end of the year. During the trip, we read the mini reviews we write from each meeting and then pick our favourite,” she says.
Book clubs aren’t just for women. Writer Justin Wolfers, who attends a unisex book club, says the male and female dynamic can make for heated debate.
“There was a book in the literary canon as being an empowering feminist book and all the boys really liked it but the girls actually hated it.”
This isn’t the only difference in opinion he has noted at his book club. He says he’s noticed a contrast in questions of intention between those in the group who are writers like himself and others who come from other backgrounds like psychology and science.
“We think about genre but others don’t always see what is being attempted and tend to take some things at face value,” he says.
He believes book clubs continue to be a popular not only because they’re an excuse to read something different but they also challenge members.
“It creates a broad discussion, it’s not academic. It allows me to approach a reading in a wider context, not just writing for writers,” he says.
If book clubs create a platform for writers to learn more about their craft, what then is the role of radio and television programs about books? Broadcaster Andrew Pople, who hosts book show Final Draft on 2SER, likens the show to a massive book club.
“There are people who love literature, who feel it’s a massive force in the world and want to unpack it,” he says.
Ramona Koval, former presenter of the ABC-Radio National program, The Book Show, sees the endurance of book clubs as a testament to the tradition of storytelling. She says that while many people selected the books they discussed, she was most pleased about the way the platform provided for a national conversation about culture.
Despite praising the way book clubs connect people, both Andrew Pople and Ramona Koval say they are reluctant to join one.
“I’d feel like I would have to sit in a corner for fear of overtaking proceedings,” Andrew says. Ramona says being a member of a book club would be like work after hours. “But
as I writer I enjoy the pleasure and honour of getting feedback from people who are engaging with my work,” she says.
The impact of book clubs extends even beyond the readers and writers. Journalist Jason Steger, a regular presenter on ABC-TV’s The Book Club, says the rise of the book club has influenced publishers to produce more background information.
“You now have more second editions of books with author interviews as well as more material being available on websites,” he says.
And book clubs are not confined to a member’s living room, they have now gone digital.
Publisher Bronwyn Mehan runs Spineless Wonders, a book club on Facebook which specialises in the discussion of digital books and mp3 readings. She says the fortnightly group is a forum for people to find new stories and a showcase for emerging writers.
“Going to a Spineless Wonders session is as easy as grabbing a beverage of your choice and sitting in front of your keyboard. Or just use your mobile phone. Preparation is minimal,” she says.
Similarly Alexandra Neill also uses Google plus parties to host book clubs.
She says, “It’s not the same as hanging around the table but it’s still pretty good.”
While Ramona Koval and Jason Stegar see the benefit of these digital discussions, they do not believe they will replace traditional book clubs.
“Physical book clubs are especially important when people move to a new town or country. It’s a relaxed way of socialising that also allows you to indulge,” Jason Stegar says.
“They provide a way to be captured by something you wouldn’t normally read among company you might not normally see,” Ramona Koval says.
Whether in a room or on a screen, the continued popularity of book clubs shows a passion for publications and people that goes beyond the page.