Last summer I ploughed my way through Middlemarch. The last time I’d read it was more than fifty years earlier when studying English at York University. I had chosen for my finals to write a special paper on George Eliot. What made me decide to read it again in 2021? My reading group picked it as a ‘summer read’. After some initial reluctance (I had a growing list of books I wanted to read over the summer), I confess to having enjoyed it – though perhaps with more reservations than I had as a student.
Reading groups have their pros and cons. I’ve made some wonderful discoveries – books I’d probably never have found otherwise. The most recent was The Lost Pianos of Siberia by Sophy Roberts. Earlier examples that come to mind are Stoner by John Williams and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. (The ‘stone’ theme is purely coincidental!) In turn I’ve introduced other members to books they might not have considered reading. We’ve experimented with different methods of choosing the year’s books but all involve members’ suggestions and usually a vote. Being based in Spain with mainly but not exclusively British members (currently the group also has Spanish, German and Swedish ones), we come up with a diverse selection that has a distinctly international flavour and usually includes at least two Spanish language books each year. Russia, China, India, Ethiopia and Chile are just some of the settings for novels we’ve read and discussed in the twelve years we’ve been meeting in Granada.
Sometimes the book I’ve proposed is pulled to pieces by some of my fellow readers but I don’t remember many occasions when nobody liked the selected book. The range of opinions is fascinating, reminding me how subjective are reading tastes (as any other kind of taste). The same book can be loved or hated – and for a variety of reasons. Characters can be loved or hated, writing styles equally. The same story can intrigue or bore, enthral or disgust different readers. And that’s what makes the meetings so stimulating.
The downside of a reading group for me is that it leaves me little time to read other books. I read reviews or have a book recommended to me and immediately want to read it but the book group choice always has to take priority. It’s true I can drop out some months if I want to. I did decline to read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. At over 800 pages, I knew I’d never manage it in four weeks. But I’m reluctant to miss the meetings, especially as so many other activities have been curtailed since the pandemic and our meetings are so enjoyable! The trouble is I’m a slow reader, always reading as a writer, noticing what works and what doesn’t, how different authors tackle plot or character or setting, the kind of language they employ. My work as an editor also slows me down by bringing to my attention every element of grammar and punctuation. Some e-books are full of formatting errors. How I wish I could skim. I might miss details but it would enable me to get through many more books, not just the ones chosen by the group.
The social contact is – as for most reading groups – an added attraction. We met on Zoom through the long period of Covid confinement but it wasn’t the same. Being able to meet (outdoors) again for the last few meetings has been a great joy. Food and drink have always featured strongly (except on Zoom) but only after an hour or more’s book discussion. The host provides wine and we each bring a dish to share. With many good cooks in the group, we enjoy a veritable feast each time.
Exposing my own books – first Secrets of the Pomegranate and later The Red Gene – to the critical eyes of our group was daunting but they were kind and their enthusiastic appreciation buoyed me up, increasing my confidence as a writer. I felt honoured to have my books discussed alongside more illustrious authors. Friends and contacts in other regions and countries have recommended my books to their own reading groups. Some invited me to attend their meetings virtually by Skype or Zoom so that I could answer questions about my books and writing. Listening to readers’ views – what they enjoyed or didn’t – has been an enriching experience and one I hope I can learn from.