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Chic lit: reading groups

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January 3, 2009 by Sonia Bellhouse

Many avid readers have embraced the 'Book Group' (U.S version) or 'The Reading Group' (Australian/English version). This cultural formation — often located in the suburbs and trivialized by critics — is not primarily encoded as 'chick lit'. Book groups provide spaces where bibliophiles meet others to discuss their passion. These avid readers meet for camaraderie and good conversation about books. They are not confined by expected notions of quality literature, but are often collectivised through their wish to explore different words and styles of writing.

Television and books
Oprah may not have started the phenomena, but her influence has been enormous. In fact, according to E Moore and K Stevens in Read any Good Books Lately (New York: St Martins Griffin, 2004): "Oprah's recommendation can translate to a minimum of an additional five hundred thousand to upward of a million copies sold" (p.18). Her choices can become instant best sellers. Many authors cultivate the opportunity to be an Oprah's Book Club selection. Others though, are less enthusiastic about the framework. Jonathan Franzen — author of The Corrections — declined his chance. He is reported as saying that some previous choices were 'schmaltzy and one dimensional'. His book became a best seller anyway, so perhaps the controversy did not hurt either his reputation or his sales.

The Sopranos, Malcolm in the Middle and The Simpsons
All these shows have featured reading groups. Each presents differing versions of the motivations and machinations of their dynamic. The Sopranos has the mob wives in a literary lounge-room. The book they are discussing is The Memoirs of a Geisha. It is a book about gender oppression and restricted lifestyle. They do not see the parallels to their own constrained lives, even if the viewers do. The group provides framework for the producers of the show to demonstrate the distinct lack of reflexivity these women have about their own role and the positioning of their partners in the crime underworld. The book-group is a normalizing function for their distinctly dysfunctional lives.

Lois, the mother of the four boys in Malcolm in the Middle joins a book group. She wants intellectual discussion, but she is the only one. The group wants to grog on and grizzle (Moore and Stevens, 2004, p. 8). This program displays the book-group as a sacred place for women to indulge in behaviour frequently unsanctioned in their roles as mothers and wives. Similarly, Marge Simpson, our favourite blue haired matron reveals, "nobody actually reads the book" and the rest of the hypothetical group giggle in agreement.

But in real book groups, in real lives, people do want to read the book. It is a space where like-minded people can gather to discuss narrative style and structure. It is not exclusively a women's space. The diversity of individuals engaging in book group culture demonstrates that narratives and negotiation still play a large part in our understanding and interaction with popular culture.

Why do people choose to belong to a reading group?
An informal survey of members of The Westfield Reading Group (the group I belong to) revealed the three main reasons; to read more books; to make contact with like minded people and to read different types of books These results are similar to surveys by other reading groups both here and overseas and is embedded within cultures of reading that often seem foreign to those outside of these collectives. Within many of these groups, a history of literature and reading is activated where readers once dialogued with authors. They were not separated from cultural processes and politics. Mark Twain affirms this sense of belonging and social aspiration: "The man [sic] who does not read good books has no advantage over the man [sic] who cannot read them."

This is what motivates the majority of members of reading groups. They do not simply wish to read more. They want to experience the diversity of books and experiences. Additionally, they relish a few surprises and challenges along the way. They want the unexpected and the unfamiliar. Anyone can pick up the latest bestseller list and read what is popular and selling well. Check out the weekend papers or even the frequent reviews in women's magazines and this information is readily available. Reading groups go beyond this. They mobilize a culture of reading that moves outside these best-seller lists and into the complexity of texts available.

Book groups are as individual as their members. Some only read the classics. Other groups are women or men only. There are mixed groups and gay groups. There are also bookstore and library groups, dinner and discussion groups — where the food is almost as important as the books. There are those for science fiction fans. Some read only biography. There are book groups for all ages, incomes and tastes. Moore and Stevens, (2004, p. 198) both experienced book group co-coordinators, affirm this diversity:

You don't join a book club, obviously, so that you can enhance your intolerance of everyone who isn't exactly like you or so that you can remain ignorant of other people's troubling perspectives.

What these groups have in common is the willingness to share their experience of the book with other members. To reveal their perspective of the book and maybe even revise it. Belonging to a reading group may encourage a reader to be more aware of style, content, and the use of language.

In our busy and bustling consumer society, readers often feel guilty for 'time wasting' when they indulge in their passion for prose. Belonging to a reading group legitimizes the activity. Alberto Manguel in A History of Reading (1996), (cited in Moore and Stevens, 2004, p.32) affirms:

[belonging to a book group] makes you feel less guilty about an activity that society sees as leisure, entertainment, or diversion…it gives us an alibi for this kind of guilty pleasure.

By being in a reading group, members feel they are contributing to the group dynamic and they are more actively engaged with their community in a way that is meaningful to them. Reading is usually a quiet and isolating pursuit, which is why many readers enjoy it. But being in a collectivity can give readers a chance to share ideas and imaginings with fellow enthusiasts. Books have a different modality of engagement than the audio-visual media like TV, film, video or music. There is less space for cultural re-appropriation within the culturally valuable and hierarhically maintained integrity of Literature. Many readers enjoy filling in the details of a book with their own imagination. It is not uncommon for readers to comment that the film of a particular book spoilt it for them. Their perception of the details was not matched by the finished product. The actors were miscast. The central theme of the book was missing or over-simplified. Reading is a skill that is intimately connected to literacy — not just in words on a page — but in social structures and synergies. The currency of writing to understanding the depth of ideas within a culture is enfolded within the passion for reading. The popular audio-visual culture as well as popular pulp fiction is encoded within the status quo of capitalism. Diversity in writing and reading allows alternative ideas to circulate — both popular and political. Reading groups can foster this fashion for reading. Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, the classic story of a government in the future, who decree books should be burnt has argued that "you don't have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non learners, non-knowers?": C Bantick, 'Fahrenheit 451 Burning Brightly 50 Years On', The West Australian, Weekend Extra, October 2004, p.8

There is a wealth of information out there to be assimilated. The television, radio, and movies are complimented, (or is that complicated?) by the increasing availability of the Internet. It is tempting to assume that the answer or answers are 'out there' in cyberspace. Connect to the right search engine, pose the right question and all will be revealed. This leaves the seeker to presume that the right information has been downloaded. Yet, according to Richard Wurman in Information Anxiety 2 (Indiana: Que, 2004), "several studies have found that somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of people searching for information on the Web failed to find what they were looking for" (p.13). Any bibliophile will tell you that you are far better off with a reliable book, with impeccable sources.

What makes a good reading group book?
Many groups prefer to read general fiction or so called 'literary' fiction. Usually the book will evoke strong emotions or opinions. It may challenge a prevailing viewpoint. The best reading group books invite different interpretations and facilitate discussion. Two successful books with our group were JM Coetzee's Booker prize winning novel, Disgrace — a memorably distinctive book about South Africa but also about relationships. All the members felt that they would remember the book. Most felt little sympathy with the main character, but thought that the book conveyed a sense of time and place particularly well.

A great success was Salley Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel. This book kept the group happily discussing Venice, the belief in angels, the books of the Apocrypha and the unfamiliar story of Tobias and the angel. Tobias is accompanied by his faithful hound. A piece of trivia, which emerged was, the only dog mentioned in the Bible, was a greyhound. The King James Version; Proverbs 30:29-31. Several members were inspired to look at the architecture of Venice after reading the book.

A good reading group book provides 'connection'. In an increasingly impersonal world of fast communication without contact, the reading group provides community.

Where do I find a reading group?
Start with your local library, or check out community notice boards. Good Reading magazine (monthly) is totally devoted to books and author interviews. The classified ads have potential book group members advertising as well as established book groups. Note for West Australian readers, these tend to be all Eastern States groups.

What are you reading now?
February's reading group selection is Tim Winton's Dirt Music.

March will be Noel Coward's play Blithe Spirit.

As a confirmed 'abibliphobic' (someone who fears running out of reading materials) I believe that reading groups provide a valuable community resource. I consider that reading for pleasure has enriched my life. It is about the enjoyment that books provide. I never want to be in the position of the readers Caroline Baum describes, in her Editors Letter in the January 2004 Good Reading magazine. These people were suffering from stress and a 'reading clinic' had been set up for those who felt they were not reading 'The right book'. How sad that they totally miss that reading is about enjoyment.

This week's personal reading choice is Paul Coelho The Alchemist.