Daily Mail, 8 May 2003
Reading groups are enjoying unprecedented popularity nowadays. But not everyone is a fan of these impromptu little clubs of book-lovers. Here MONICA PORTER tells why she became a reading group drop-out.
Last spring my old and trusted friend Marianne, with whom I have spent many an evening chewing over the big issues of our lives, invited me to join her reading group. ‘Come on,’ she urged. ‘You love books, don’t you?’
I hesitated. Did I really want to sit around with a bunch of clever women all evening, discussing the symbolic meaning behind something that Martin Chuzzlewit said to Mr. Pecksniff? Apart from anything else, I worried that I might not be as well-read and erudite as the others and would struggle to keep my brow as high as theirs. What if, in an unguarded moment, I let slip the words ‘Jilly Cooper’ or something equally unforgivable?
Naturally I was aware of how fashionable these reading circles had become. I’d heard that in America the endorsement of an obscure new book by reading groups could propel it into the bestseller lists. And over here they were practically de rigueur amongst the trendy middle-classes. So, I reasoned, maybe it would be a laugh, a bit of congenial banter about books over a few drinks with new-found friends.
Marianne explained that the six of them met once a month, taking turns to host the meeting at home. Marianne and I are journalists, we live by the written word. Two of the others in the group did, too, as book publishers. There was also an artist, an architect and a designer – all local friends of one of the publishers, the formidable Germaine. A typical arty-media line-up for our patch: the hip northern suburbs of London.
The first book I had to read was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins. Okay, I thought. I’d heard of that. Wasn’t it a classic? I bought a copy and settled down to immerse myself in it. I got through five pages before tossing it aside. Perhaps when it first appeared in the Fifties it appealed to Left Bank café society, but it’s as outdated as a whalebone corset and far less fun. I just couldn’t bring myself to trudge through 600 pages of turgid prose. But how would I tell the others?
It was like being 14 again and having to invent an excuse for not doing my homework. I couldn’t claim that the dog ate my copy of The Mandarins. I don’t have a dog. Neither could I pretend to be too burdened by domestic tasks to have time for novel-reading, as Marianne knew full well that I had a cleaner, did my shopping online and took a Shirley Conran approach to cooking.
So I bravely owned up and sent the women an email saying I found the book too heavy-going, and if they therefore chose to expel me from the group, so be it.
To my surprise and relief, I got emails back from three of them, including Marianne, all agreeing with my view of the book. It was duly dropped, and replaced by Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom.
I knew Welty was a mid-20th century American grande dame of letters, but hadn’t read her works. Good opportunity to fill in a gap. Only this time I got my copy from the library.
Her novel had the great attribute of brevity. I read it in a sitting. It’s an odd sort of fable, nicely written without being memorable. Luckily I remembered enough about it to discuss it at the meeting, held at the post-modernist flat of Tabitha, the designer.
Her sitting room was white and spartan, with a few arty lights dotted around, designed mainly by Tabitha herself. ‘I like that,’ I said, pointing to a frosted-glass, egg-shaped light in a corner.
Tabitha looked pained. ‘That one is from Habitat,’ she informed me.
Germaine, a large girl who had forced her hips into a pair of tight jeans, reclined on the chaise-longue while the rest of us sat on ‘style statement’ chairs. Helena, the artist, pale and willowy, spoke sensitively about the book’s characters, as though they were real people; their pain was her pain. This was peculiar, considering it was a fairy tale and wholly unrealistic. Or was I missing something?
Jean, the other publisher, was an American with an emphatic manner and loud voice. She had ‘absolutely adored’ the book, which she expounded upon at length, like a dog determined to extract the last morsel of marrow from a bone. My thoughts drifted…
Suddenly Jean finished and turned to me. ‘What did you think of it?’ she demanded. All eyes fell on me and my cheeks burned. I desperately wanted to make a profound statement about The Robber Bridegroom, but at that moment I’d been pondering what to get my partner for his birthday. Digital camera or DVD player?
I remembered what I used to do in high school when my maths teacher unexpectedly called upon me to perform some tricky act of mental arithmetic: I made a joke. The kids would laugh and the teacher shake her head wearily.
So I grinned and quipped: ‘Not enough sex.’ Silence. ‘Er…joke,’ I added. But Helena only bit her lip, and Germaine peered at me pityingly. Only Marianne came to my rescue with a feeble titter. I would have liked to reach for a glass of wine, but – what with everyone taking their literary duties very seriously – we were drinking camomile tea.
Worse was to come at the end of the meeting, when we discussed which book should be next. The ferociously well-read women seemed familiar with every author and every volume ever published, which I found daunting. I decided against proposing Bridget Jones’s Diary…
In the end, Germaine picked George Eliot’s epic Daniel Deronda. My heart sank. Why should we read that hefty doorstopper, I wondered, when the forthcoming TV adaptation had already been announced by the BBC? I admire Eliot, but life is short. I protested.
Germaine gave me the sort of withering look that Anne Robinson gives the Weakest Link.
Naturally, she got her way.
My refusal to read Daniel Deronda reinforced my reputation for insubordination, and according to Marianne caused some tut-tutting in my absence. I decided to try harder.
The meeting to discuss the following novel, Anna Karenina, was to be held at my house, which gave me a sense of false security. In lieu of reading the thousand-pager, I swotted up on one of those brilliant, cheat-your-way-through-exams websites. I also spent a Sunday afternoon lying on the sofa watching it on video, bawling my eyes out and getting through a king-size bag of Smarties. Who says I don’t appreciate the Russian classics?
Unfortunately, this research didn’t stand up to the group’s intensive debate on each character’s inner angst and the searching discussion on whether Tolstoy’s choice of breakfast food influenced him in the creation of his masterwork.
To be honest, I didn’t dislike the women. They were pleasant enough during our brief chats about our daily lives, holidays, our families and our work. But given a weighty Victorian tome to probe, they underwent an alarming transformation into pretentious, point-scoring bluestockings. In my view, the ponderous literary musings only got in the way of an enjoyable girls’ night out, just as they say that golf spoils a nice walk. All of which – you must be thinking – made me a distinctly unsuitable member of their group. So, dear reader, I dropped out.
Now, where did I put that Jilly Cooper book, and the Smarties?