Yesterday evening I attended my first ever meeting of a book club. Yes, I know, shocking that I’ve never been to one before – but it turns out it’s not as easy as you might expect to track one down. London may be awash with arty, literary types who presumably enjoy nothing better than dissecting the latest zeitgesty novel over a glass of something crisp with top notes of lemon and hydrangea – but where do they do it? Perhaps they’re all hunkered down in Hampstead drawing rooms, decrying the death of the omniscient third person narrator whilst secretly envying each other’s beards (especially the women). Wherever it is, I can tell you it’s not anywhere they choose to advertise on the interweb.
So having tried and failed to find anything online, I’d all but given up on the idea when I happened upon an article in the free magazine circulated by my local council, which listed book clubs in my area. Why they can’t stick this stuff on their website is anyone’s guess, but obviously the moon was in the right astrological house that month for the secret to be divulged. “At last!” I thought, “My wait is over.”
Well, not quite. When I got in touch with the organiser back in July, the next meeting was only a couple of days away and I didn’t have time to get my hands on and read the chosen book. There was no meeting in August, so I’ve had a couple of months to prepare and arm myself with erudite observations – well, observations anyway – for September’s discussion of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. Anticipation was high.
We gathered in pleasant little room below a bookshop, door open to admit a breeze on what was a surprisingly sultry evening for the time of year. There were eleven of us all told, all but one other over retirement age and – this may be bold, I know – presumably with sufficient time on their hands over the course of two months to actually read the novel they were supposed to be discussing. Not so in the case of three of those present, who hadn’t finished it, and one who admitted to not having started it at all. That’s not counting the other person whose first meeting this also was, and who’d just come along to listen not knowing what book was due to be discussed.
With our numbers thus effectively depleted, the conversation didn’t start well. Wasn’t the book terribly long? This was followed by five minutes of comparison of the number of pages it ran to in various editions, with and without introductions, hard copy and e-book.
A far too brief discussion of the parallels with modern life ensued. No-one seemed to have very much to say other than observing – doubtless accurately – that the world doesn’t change much.
Things livened up a bit when we got onto the characters – it really should have done, given there are well over twenty of them who get enough air time to warrant some reflection. Whom did we like? Whom didn’t we? How was their behaviour shaped by the world in which they lived? All good fun, in the way that gossiping about the lives of mutual friends or acquaintances always is.
But there, sadly, we stopped and could get no further.
One conscientious gentleman had brought a book full of his notes and offered a thought on a possible theme. It fell into a well of silence, the echoes as it clattered down and down reverberating around the room as other people studied their fingernails. I took to leafing through my copy in what I hoped was an intellectual-looking fashion.
Over 700 pages – let me be precise, since now I can: 766 pages in the Wordsworth Classics edition, over 932 on the Kindle – by one of the most respected English novelists of the Victorian era, and after half an hour, the discussion had run dry.
The conversation wandered. I amused myself by bringing up Fifty Shades of Grey. Everyone perked up – even the disapproving German lady who claimed to have managed only ten pages and who, with a curl of her lip, pronounced it, “Trrresh!”
Next month we’re discussing John Lanchester’s Capital. I hope for better. I feel the civil servant in me raising its sleepy head and calling for an agenda: voice, style, themes, characters, plot, goddammit!
Does anyone have suggestions for how these things might work better? Anything that’s made your book club discussions go with a zing? Because failing that, I’ll be putting in a vote for E.L. James for the November meeting.
And I’m not sure what the conscientious older gentleman will write in his notebook then.