‘Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own.’
Anyone who has read The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood will recognise the concept of how sharing a passion for an art or craft can bring unlikely people together and provide an extra dimension to the beloved pastime. But can reading as part of a group really offer the same benefits? If you have ever got to the end of a book and wished there was someone else to chat to about what the author really meant to say, then a reading group might be just what you need.
Hilary Magill, of Kirkby Underwood, shared how belonging to a book club works for her: ‘Our group started up as an extension to our WI group,’ said Hilary, ‘and a few of us got together to see if anyone else was interested in forming a Book Club and they were! Members are all WI ladies from Rippingale and District WI and we have 12 members. Belonging to a book club has meant that I now have an opinion on a whole new range of literature. When a book or an author that I recognise is mentioned in conversation, I can now talk with authority as we will have discussed the book and its author in depth and therefore it stays with me longer.’
Which is all very well, but with 12 members, does choice of book not provoke heated debate? Hilary thinks to the contrary: ‘We choose our books via the library scheme for Book Clubs,’ said Hilary. ‘Although we sift the options, we have no idea what is coming when! We meet monthly and the books are returned to the library by the host of the month. We have all read books that we would never have ever considered reading before and found many really good.’
Sue Picton, of Morton, runs the group and ensures the decision is democratically reached. ‘Books are chosen once a year from a list sent to us from Lincoln Central Library, said Sue. ‘We all go through the titles and tick what we would like to read and the most popular get put on our list and requested. There are a lot of sheets of titles to go through so although there is no time for a full-on discussion, our system works well for us. Members often comment that although they wouldn’t have picked the book for themselves, they are very glad to have read it. I personally find it fascinating how we can all interpret things differently after reading the same book; it makes one look at things in a different light. It is also a chance to get together socially and keep up to date.’
It’s not just the WI that has formed an offshoot for the sole purpose of reading. Pat Bailey belongs to a group that has been going for nine years, meeting monthly at David and Dot Mainwaring’s home in Morton.
‘The group is run under the auspices of the University of the Third Age (U3A), Bourne branch,’ said Pat, ‘and is one of 3 reading groups in the area. You have to be a U3A member to join and there is a mixture of both sexes – mainly retired, professional people. Agreement or disagreement regarding the book reviewed does not always follow the sex or age group of the participant which can be quite interesting. We obtain our books from Bourne Library, also using the LCC list of titles.’
Liz Taylor is Collections Access Officer and the vital link between the library and our local groups. ‘There are two types of reading group services currently running in Lincolnshire,’ explained Liz, ‘The first is a subscription reading group service for which I am responsible. This was started over 10 years ago with 6 groups and 20 titles. We now have 156 groups, 6 of which use Bourne Library as their collection point. Groups pay £25 per year, which goes towards buying stock, and they can choose titles from a list of over 100 and up to 12 books per year and they don’t currently pay reservation or overdue charges. The list is mixture of fiction and non-fiction titles. Fiction goes from the classics, prize winners, for example, the Booker Prize, to crime and popular titles. I take suggestions from the groups and where possible act on them. Non-fiction is mainly biographies, war books, plus anything that is of note. Where possible, we supply titles in different formats: CD; Large Print; e-audio and e-books. A copy of the book list is available on the Lincolnshire County Council website.’ Liz also outlined the other reading group service, whereby groups use the library to source their own books. ‘There are groups like these attached to most of the libraries in the County,’ said Liz, ‘A member of the group goes into the library and orders copies of the title for their group but they do pay reservation fees and overdue charges. At the last count there were 41 groups using the library service to source their books.’
Not all reading groups use the service – and indeed, not all groups meet in people’s homes; in fact, both Sue Picton and Hilary Magill make the point that doing so does limit numbers and they already have a waiting list of keen readers from their WI, as does the U3A. No such constraints for the group headed up by Sally Burton of Haconby though! Sally heard a feature on the radio about a group that met at their local pub and Sally had the bright idea of approaching members of a moribund reading group to see if they fancied starting up again but this time basing themselves at the Hare and Hounds in Haconby, where Mary and Derek extend a warm welcome and sandwiches to round off the evening. ‘All sorts of people come to the book group, said Sally, ‘all ages, men and women, and there is a variety in preferred types of reading.’ Rather than using a library scheme, members of the group offer suggestions and books are then put to the vote. ‘Whoever has put forward the chosen book gets to say why they think it’s worthy of a read,’ Sally added.
Not only is Catherine Smith a keen member of the Hare and Hounds group, but she also runs a reading group; the ‘Bourne Browsers’. Initially started for parents of students in a local school, the group now meets in a local coffee shop since membership has grown organically and now has no particular school connection. Catherine is of the firm opinion that being part of a group has enhanced her reading experience. ‘I read a broader variety of genres than I would otherwise, ‘said Catherine, ‘and discussing the books makes me think about different perspectives. It encourages me to read more widely and think about what I’m reading more deeply.’ But isn’t it all jolly hard work, even if you can enjoy a glass of wine at the same time? Sally Burton doesn’t think so: ‘It is far less taxing than what was expected during English Literature classes at school! It makes you think about what you have enjoyed or not and enables you to put into words the thoughts and feelings that you have experienced during and after reading. It is often very interesting to hear others’ sometimes more perceptive or more analytical thoughts about what we have read.’
Hilary is of the same mind: ‘It is so fascinating to see how people react so differently to one book,’ she said. ‘It makes me really look at something from another perspective, which I wouldn’t have previously done. It has allowed me to read and reread classics studied at school and, indeed, read with different eyes!’
But is it really all about the literature? Not according to Sally, ‘As much as anything, it’s a social event,’ Sally said. ‘The conversations that develop from issues raised by the authors can be pretty lively – and you also get ideas of other books you might like to read if you take note of those that aren’t necessarily adopted by the group.’
Louise Bradley is CSA at Stamford Library, where two book clubs currently meet. ‘For us, we really value each other’s opinion,’ says Louise, ‘which never fails to surprise. We can help each other with advice and information from our own experiences. We talk about all sorts of things, as well as the books, like holidays, family stuff and whatever else is going on in our lives and the world.’
Hilary Magill also feels that a shared reading experience can be cathartic: ‘Topics that have brought personal experiences to be aired fall mainly into literature about mental health issues and issues like adoption, about growing up in the 60s, travel to third world countries and local history mentioned in historical novels. I personally think discussing such issues can bring comfort and guidance where needed to real life situations. Without any fear of embarrassment, I can now even report if I wept all the way through a certain book!’
Perhaps, given the fact that it is through her efforts that all over our area, books reach the right hands, Liz Taylor should have the last word: ‘Apart from the obvious advantage of reading books you may not necessarily have chosen for yourself, there is a social aspect,’ said Liz, ‘especially for people who live on their own or who do not go out much. I believe that book groups who use either of our services make a valuable contribution to a person’s well-being.’