The true story about book clubs They're full of show-offs, drunks and fibbers
01:02 GMT, 17 May 2012
We sat around the living room. Suzanne, the hostess, was scarlet with stress because her vol-au-vents had burned. Miriam was crying softly in the corner because she’d had four glasses of wine.
Then she recounted for the umpteenth time how her boyfriend had left her for his secretary.
As ever, Sarah was pleading the case for something meaty ‘like Ulysses’ next month, while her sister Georgina was countering that she’d prefer a nice Maeve Binchy.
'I'd reached the conclusion that they arent for people who love reading, but for people who hate it.'
Alison, a new recruit, had announced she hadn’t bothered reading Howards End but had rented a DVD of the film starring Emma Thompson instead.
Meanwhile, I was looking at my watch, wondering how soon my mini-cab would arrive and when I’d find the nerve to tell the others I was through with book clubs.
Forget self-service check-outs with voices booming: ‘Unidentified Object in the Bagging Area.’ Forget budget airlines. When it comes to the most irritating phenomenon of the 21st century, nothing beats the book club.
Just as it’s hard to believe that not so long ago we carried on perfectly well without the internet, the younger generation may be astonished to learn that, until recently, it was normal to read a book purely for pleasure.
But then, at some point in the early Nineties, some spoilsport decided that reading a book was too much like fun. So was an evening’s gossip with friends. So, it was decided to combine the two.
Henceforth, every middle-class woman (book clubs are a uniquely female phenomenon) was obliged — along with shopping in over-priced farmers’ markets and dressing her children in Boden — to join a book club.
'Real readers do not need to rely on Richard and Judy or Oprah Winfrey for guidance. Theyre dashing round libraries and keeping small bookshops alive with their thirst for the printed word.'
From then on she must read one book a month; not because it appealed to her, but because it had been selected by her sister-in-law’s neighbour’s aromatherapist who’d read about it in a magazine at the hairdresser’s.
Once a month, no matter how busy she might be with her family or job, this woman would be forced to leave her cosy home, to travel to sit with a motley bunch of women, drink wine and offer incisive opinions on the book — bearing in mind that ‘I thought it was OK’ would not cut the mustard.
For a while, I was such an unlucky creature. In my 20s, when my friend Heather talked me in to joining one of these new-fangled affairs, I was thrilled. I was a passionate reader, I loved a girls’ night-in — what was not to like
Fast forward to nine months later and the scene above. After one meeting, Heather had moved to France, but I’d found myself trapped in book-club hell.
It all came back to me yesterday, when I read the new guidelines to setting up a book club on an internet blog called The Middle Class Handbook. Every pitfall the online guide heralded was one that we’d fallen into headlong.
First, we had an over-opinionated member. That was Sarah, an English graduate and lawyer turned stay-at-home mother. Her toddlers were unimpressed by her formidable brains — and by her attempts to potty-train them. So book club gave her a rare chance to revel in one-upmanship.
‘Am I the only one who’s read this properly,’ she’d sigh at every meeting, before launching into a lecture on linguistic theory and the role of the unreliable narrator. All a bit unnecessary when we’d been reading the new Adrian Mole.
'I've realised my mistake was to take the phrase book club literally. They are not meant to be about reading.'
Whenever someone else ventured an opinion, Sarah would shake her head violently, muttering: ‘Hardly, hardly.’ It was like living in a police state where every view not pleasing to the authorities was dismissed as fantasy.
Every meeting ended with her berating the rest of us for not wanting to read a newly translated Polish work of magical realism, but a biography of Richard Branson.
It was bad enough being judged intellectually, but the social side was worse. ‘Oh . . . how fun and studenty!’ exclaimed Suzanne the first time I hosted at my single-girl flat.
My two bags of nachos and a spicy dip went down as well as Georgina’s suggestion we next read the new Jackie Collins. On the following occasion, I slaved half the night before over a Jamie Oliver stew, only to claim: ‘Honestly, it was no trouble.’
The problem was that I’d fretted over it for so long there had been no time to read the book.
The Middle Class Handbook warns against ‘theming’ (cooking pies when you read Life Of Pi) and, indeed, Miriam finally walked out of book club after the suggestion she supplied Vietnamese food for a book called The Sorrow Of War by Bao Ninh about the Vietnam War.
It also warns against too much sauvignon blanc, to which I plead guilty. Since there was no point in expressing my views, I decided to endure book club in a state of merriment — with the resulting debilitating hang-over.
However, I wasn’t as bad as recently dumped Miriam, who had confused the club with a free therapy session. Any issue that touched on relationships — for example, that the heroine of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie was unmarried — would be seized on as an excuse for a maudlin monologue about how she’d never find love again.
‘The book club that drifts away from books towards discussions of (the actor) Sean Bean is destined for failure,’ warns The Middle Class Handbook.
'And so it proved, with help from Alison, who repeatedly admitted she’d made no attempt to read the book, but loved the film or TV version.
Cue Sarah seething, while the rest of us debated whether Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mocking Bird was more handsome than Omar Sharif in Dr Zhivago.
'As I head out for my cherished monthly night out with my buddies, I yell book club! apologetically over my shoulder, fibbing to my husband.'
Our last meeting ended with an unresolved dispute over whether our next book should be Bleak House (‘It’s a classic! How unbelievable none of you have read it!’ Sarah moaned) or The Silence Of The Lambs (because of the film version).
We chose the worthier option, but never made a date to reconvene.
We should have heeded The Middle Class Handbook’s most pertinent advice: ‘Never read Middlemarch — or any book pre-1900 or over 450 pages.’
But by now, as you may have gathered, I was more than delighted to be free of book club tyranny.
I’d reached the conclusion that they aren’t for people who love reading, but for people who hate it.
Real readers devour novels. Book-club members believe that one book a month will make them erudite, in much the same way a daily vitamin pill will prevent cancer.
Real readers do not need to rely on Richard and Judy or Oprah Winfrey for guidance. They’re dashing round libraries and keeping small bookshops alive with their thirst for the printed word.
Decades on and now a harassed mother, I’ve realised my mistake was to take the phrase ‘book club’ literally.
They are not meant to be about reading — they’re the female equivalent of ‘the big game’, in other words, virtually the only socially acceptable excuse for a woman to abandon her family for the night.
As I head out for my cherished monthly night out with my buddies, leaving dishes unwashed and the children unbathed, I yell ‘book club!’ apologetically over my shoulder, fibbing to my husband.
Then, when I stagger in after midnight, I climb in to bed, don my reading glasses and devour another chapter of Middlemarch, happy in the knowledge I’ll never have to discuss it with another living soul.