I went to a book club at Sandgate north of Brisbane recently, one of a dozen or so I’ve visited in the last year to talk about In Falling Snow. It was a cool clear night and as I was leaving, I saw a crescent moon like a smile in the sky. It happens only rarely, apparently, in the northern summer and southern winter, when the sun illuminates the moon from directly below. It’s called the cheshire moon, for the grin, or the wet moon because it’s like a bowl that can fill with water, or the dry moon, because it’s like a bowl that can fill with water. Anyway, the cheshire/ wet/ dry moon – and the book club I’d just visited – made me smile too.
The book industry nowadays is full of fear about what the future will bring, and quite a bit of doomsaying, but book clubs remain much as they’ve always been, groups of six or more readers who meet regularly to discuss a book they’ve just read. Or some of them have read. Or sometimes, one of them has read, or at least nearly finished. Some meet in libraries or bookstores, bless them, but most meet in homes. In some, the books are decided by a benevolent or totalitarian despot. Others are more democratic, taking turns or deciding by consensus. I visited one some years ago run by a married couple who sniped at one another for the entire two hours I was there. No one else dared say much. Sometimes there’s food – I’ve noticed green olives are a common feature – and mostly there’s drink. Meetings are invariably held when kids are in bed or at school. Some take their reading seriously. Others are more relaxed and focus less on books and more on catching up.
The largest I attended had around 50 members drawn from two of the four book clubs Avid Reader Bookstore’s Fiona Stager runs. These bookclubs are at the focused end, with Stager selecting the books and keeping discussion on topic. Stager says she finds it endlessly fascinating what people will bring to a text and the book clubs become an important part of people’s lives. Two members of the fiction book club fell in love, married and now have a family. A member of another book club, who drives over 20 kilometres each way to attend, says there was nothing in her life until she had the book club.
Ray Bradbury’s disturbing novel, Fahrenheit 451, describes a future in which books have been banned altogether, with flame-thrower-wielding firemen called in to burn books (and their owners!) There’s an underground movement whose members meet in secret bookclubs. Written in 1954, Fahrenheit 451 is extraordinary for the future it so accurately predicts. In Bradbury’s world, books became less important initially because life was so busy and other media were more appealing. Sound familiar? From there, it was easy for government to ban books with their inconvenient truths.
Books have become something of a cottage industry in my lifetime, or perhaps they’ve always been a cottage industry and I only just noticed. When I was growing up, it felt like everyone read books. It’s what you did in the hours indoors when you weren’t sleeping or eating. Now there’s so much to compete with books that it’s amazing bookclubs have members at all. I’m a keen reader but if I’d grown up with the chance to mess around on the internet and play games in lieu of reading, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be any kind of reader now. And yet, book clubs are thriving, with members of all ages. And they're always such welcoming folk.
Stager says if she’s part of a cottage industry, she’s happy about that. “Craft is becoming hip. There’s the whole slow food movement. People just love to come together about a book.” I have to agree. As a teenager, I used to dream something like Fahrenheit 451, a terrible nightmare where I wasn’t allowed to read anymore. I can’t remember details, just waking in fright.
Reading a good book may not be the easiest pleasure in life, but it’s one of the greatest, and an opportunity to meet and commune over what books give is up there with those rare life experiences that connect us deeply as humans.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 31 August 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!