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The problem with book clubs

The best way to kill a book is to make it required reading at high school. Some of the world’s great novels have been ruined in this way, rendering tiresome and boring books that should inspire and uplift.

I first read Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye as prescribed texts in Year 11 and 12. Sadly, the obligation to read and study them removed any sense of joy I might have derived reading these classic novels. It was only years later, when I read each of my own volition, that I discovered all that have made them so well-loved by so many.

It is the same sense of obligation that makes me ambivalent about book clubs. While a wonderful way of connecting people who share a passion for literature, the requirement to read a nominated book can quickly start to taint the very art form book clubs are supposed to celebrate. Few are the members who have not experienced the guilt of failing to have read the book. Should they still attend, and sit in silence? Will they come clean? Or would it be better to just read the last page and wing it?

Such is the pressure of book clubs that I know of one that degenerated into a wine club after members felt so incapacitated by the sense of obligation that they ditched the idea altogether.

No, an obligation to read is no kind of incentive to pick up a book, and it often has the opposite effect, rendering the intended reader incapable of turning off the television or logging off Facebook.

It is the same with book recommendations; often appreciated, but sometimes less so. I remember the time I mentioned to a new friend that I liked to read, and she swiftly turned up at my house with a bag heaving with books. In that bag were years full of books. Sure, it was a kind gesture that it was impossible to reject, yet it was equally impossible to do justice to. Now, every time I see that friend, I feel guilty that I only got through a couple of her many, many books. Ok, just one.

A problem with recommendations is that it takes so much time to read a book. According to the Electric Literature website, which features a list of the lengths of common books, and an estimate of how long they take to read, it takes 8.43 hours (or about 26 days in 20 minute installments just before bed or when the kids are napping). That is assuming you read every day. When time is limited and great books are plentiful, each book is quite a commitment.

I had not discovered the website when I unwittingly ordered Atlas Shrugged online after hearing book lover Jennifer Byrne mention that it was one of her favourites. It turns out that it is 32.2 hours (more than three months!) long. The Age books editor Jason Steger did not pull any punches about his opinion after reading the book for an episode of The Book Club in which he was a panelist.

I’ll never forgive that Jennifer Byrne for inflicting Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on us. After only 30 pages I knew I loathed it; that left only about 1100 more to read – a bad novel with despicable ideas, a horrible reading experience, and hours of my life down the gurgler.”

Another reason why choosing a book for someone else is so fraught is that reading tastes are so personal and variable that it is easy to get it wrong. And it’s not just taste that determines whether someone enjoys a book – it is also the timing. Is the recipient of the recommendation looking to be cheered up after a heart break, to relax during a holiday or to counter the monotony of their everyday lives? Do they hope to be inspired, to be lulled to sleep or to laugh out loud? They are all such different propositions, requiring equally diverse books.

As I have a books blog, I am often asked for recommendations. Each time the question comes up, I pause. There are so many great books, but so many differing opinions on what constitutes a ‘good’ read. People of similar tastes and circumstances can disagree vehemently about books, with even award-winning and bestselling novels attracting many contrary opinions. I usually go with a few of my favourites (We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Fine Balance or God of Small Things. These days, I might even mention The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye), but am well aware that they are not to everybody’s tastes. And I would not want to inflict a poor choice on another reader, agreeing with Lionel Shriver when she said:

“Reading time is precious. Don’t waste it. Reading bad books, or books that are wrong for a certain time of your life, can dangerously turn you off the activity altogether.”

Although I don’t necessarily agree with the notion of a bad book, I do know that books can certainly be considered bad by some readers, and I would hate to put a potential reader off entirely.

As difficult as it is to make a recommendation, it is also tricky knowing how to react to an unwanted book recommendation. Is it best to risk insult by simply saying ‘no thanks’? Or should you read the book, regardless of whether you would ever choose it yourself? Perhaps it is best to say ‘thank you’ and hope the book never comes up in conversation?

Of course, there is every chance recommended books will be enjoyable, expose the reader to new authors or genres and offer the opportunity to find common ground and discussion points between two book lovers. I have a friend in America who loves books as much as I do, and we often tell each other what books we are reading. Through him, I have discovered Wallace Stegner, Philip Roth and Maria Dermout. It would be a great shame to have missed out on reading books by these extraordinary writers. Similarly, my father-in-law and I often exchanging our thoughts on books we have read and introducing each other to new authors. However, the difference between these recommendations and some others is that I feel happy to pick and choose which ones I pursue; there is no sense of obligation and no offense if I don’t have the time or inclination to read a certain book. In this way, recommendations can be a wonderful way to share an appreciation of literature.

Book recommendations can be wonderful, just like book clubs, but it is the side serving of obligation that is troublesome. Life is too short to read books just because you feel like you should and nothing is as likely to ensure you don’t enjoy a book as the obligation to read it.


This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. Fascinating post but I have to disagree about book clubs. It sounds to me like you haven’t met a good one. They are rare I think but they do exist. Mine is 30 years old this month. We are currently having to reject new member requests because at 13 people we are big enough. We still have about 5 original members. The ones who have left left because they left town. We don’t complain if people don’t finish a book but they have to accept there’ll be spoilers. We choose books by consensus. I think this is better than those clubs where they take turns choosing books. Not everyone loves every book we read but the fact that people stick to us once they join suggests that they like what we do and how we do it. A good club needs an idea of what it wants to read, some discipline about keeping to the plan but some flexibility too, tolerance for when people just can’t fulfil their obligations (reading, hosting, etc), and a sense of humour.

    1. Hi Sue,
      Your book club sounds like the perfect model – nice and relaxed and with books chosen by consensus!
      I think you’re right, that book clubs can be wonderful, and I’m hoping to join another one in the future. I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe when it comes to books – I have trouble committing to read one book, because I always get sidetracked by other books and get nervous when I feel like I have to read something! Perhaps something I have to work on 🙂
      Thanks so much for writing and your book club sounds like a great model! (I checked out your Whispering Gums blog and I love it).

  2. I like bookclubs although currently we are more dinnerclub than book club. We have experimented with different formats and maybe we will revive. We attend whether we have read the book or not.

    1. I love the idea of a dinner club, where books are part of the proceedings! And that there’s no pressure to have read the book 🙂

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