Why we love our book group

A meeting of the Brantham book group

A meeting of the Brantham book group - Credit: Archant

The rise of the book club seems unstoppable but, as Sheena Grant discovered when she joined a meeting of one Suffolk group, it’s about far more than just reading

It’s a cold and wet February night but Hilary Bowen’s house is warm and welcoming. Every kitchen surface is awash with plates of nibbles and cakes and I’ve barely had time to take off my coat before the host is offering me a drink.

Hilary’s daughter, Sarah Keys, is sitting in a comfy chair, awaiting the arrival of the evening’s guests, a collection of friends and family who meet once a month to share their love of books, among other things.

Sarah pushes the sitting room door closed as we chat. Her heavily pregnant sister, Charlie Bailey (whose baby was due four days ago), is upstairs trying to get another child to sleep.

The doorbell rings again and before long the room is full and a hubbub of conversation and giggles fills the air. The book group is about to begin. Tonight, the 10 members present (two can’t make it) will be discussing Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, a haunting novel set during the early 20th Century and dealing with complex relationships, loneliness and family secrets.

Mother-of-three Sarah, who studied English and American Literature at the University of Essex, started the group six years ago.

“I’ve always loved reading and books have been a big part of my life,” she says. “I love how words can lead you on a journey and broaden your mind. In 2009, soon after the birth of my second child, I realised I desperately missed the chance to share and discuss books I had read with others. At university and afterwards at work you meet with your friends and can talk about the books you’ve read but when you have children you don’t have the opportunity to go out and chat in quite the same way.

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“I was talking to my mum about it and said I would love to be in a book group. She said: ‘Why don’t you start one of your own?’.”

So Sarah, who now works as Brantham parish clerk and strikes me as the organised type, did just that. And so have countless others. The growth of reading groups has been one of the success stories of recent years - even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is getting in on the act, announcing at the start of this year that he was going to read a book every two weeks and asking others to join him.

It’s hard to know exactly how many book clubs there are because so many of them are informal networks of friends. More than 10 years ago when she wrote The Reading Groups Book, Professor Jenny Hartley reckoned there could be as many as 50,000.

There are reading groups devoted to football, horror, and crime. There are groups in prisons, groups for men and groups who cook for each other. These days, book clubs are an inescapable part of British life.

When Sarah started hers, she didn’t have to look far for potential members.

“My sister was interested and knew someone else who might be too,” she says. “I emailed some people I knew and asked what they thought and to bring along any friends who might be keen. Some are still here, some have dropped out and some new people have joined, depending on individual circumstances.”

As well as Sarah and Charlie, those present tonight at Hilary’s Brantham home include Dawn McCracken and Charmaine Greenan, both originally Sarah’s work colleagues, Gill Coulthard, Jo Bennett, Beryl Lansdown, Charlie Martin and Ann Tingey.

The group meets monthly. Books are chosen by each member picking the name of a title out of a hat and the monthly meeting moves between members’ homes, each time hosted by whoever drew the book being discussed that month.

“Whoever is hosting leads the discussion for the evening and provides drinks and lots of delicious nibbles,” says Sarah. “We take a break from reading in August for an outing to the Red Rose Chain Theatre in the Forest productions and again in December when we meet at the Library in Milsoms, Dedham, for a Christmas meal, complete with literary Secret Santa gifts and book-related games.”

There’s no danger of anyone forgetting the schedule as Sarah provides handy laminated sheets spelling out what they’re reading, when and who is hosting the discussion. Those sheets are the subject of much mirth and good-natured banter.

The group is by no means ‘serious’ but reading their share of less than well-written novels prompted a change of focus a couple of years ago and reading lists are now only picked from literary prize candidates and winners.

“It means we’ve read some truly brilliant books, although, of course, not everyone likes everything and discussion can often become heated, although there haven’t been any fallings out yet,” says Sarah.

Tonight’s discussion is no exception. Some clearly liked Helen Dunmore’s book more than others and had read the relationships and unspoken motivations of characters in entirely different ways.

As well as getting heated, the discussion can also, occasionally, descend into farce. Take, for instance, the time when local author Ruth Dugdall visited to discuss one of her books, only to learn one member had unconsciously created an alternative, happier ending to her novel. The memory still makes the book group friends laugh and wince in equal measure.

“I went to sleep after finishing the book and was so upset by the ending I must have dreamed an entirely new conclusion,” says the guilty party, whose name I agreed not to use to spare her blushes. “Ruth was very polite about it.”

It’s clear that the group’s importance to its members goes way beyond the books they discuss.

“We may have started as a group which met to discuss books but it’s grown from there,” says Sarah. “Friends of friends have become your friends, we see each other regularly and talk about things that are happening in our lives. That is as much part of the group as the books. Over the years we’ve had lots of births, marriages and even, sadly, a couple of divorces.”

Charmaine agrees. “We joined because we wanted to read and do something different to work, using our brains in a different way,” she says. “We were from different friendship groups and have become a friendship group in our own right. The gossiping keeps us coming. The wine and cake helps. For me there have been times when book group has been an escape from what life is doing elsewhere. It’s a safe place among people who think well of you when you are not being thought well of in other areas of life.”

Everyone seems to feel the same way.

“It’s great to feel you can come somewhere where you will not be judged, whatever you say,” says Charlie Bailey.

Gill adds: “If you’re going through a tough time reading makes you focus on something different - especially because you’ve got that deadline.”

But it would be wrong to give the impression the books themselves aren’t important. They are. Focussing on titles that are more challenging has added a depth to all the members’ reading.

“You really have to engage with a book when you’re reading it,” says Charmaine. “There is a serious side to it and sometimes you realise that a book has bothered you and you are not sure how they are going to speak about it at the group.”

But finishing a title is not compulsory.

“Even if you haven’t got to the end of a particular book it’s still a night out and it’s always interesting to hear what other people thought about it,” says Sarah.

And the group has helped broaden reading tastes. “I used to read the same type of books but this has made me read different books and read differently,” says Jo.

“It definitely expands your reading,” says Hilary. “With book clubs you are forced to read something out of your comfort zone.”

“Let’s face it,” says Dawn, “without a group like this you are never going to have that depth of conversation about a book in everyday life.

“Coming to book group is also an opportunity to drive childminding skills into the male population.”

Books that have divided opinion include Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall but one that everyone agrees they would recommend is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

The evening tends to last as long as the discussion. “And that all depends on the book we’ve been reading,” says Sarah. “Good books stimulate more discussion.”

The conversation about A Spell of Winter gets under way with talk about its plot and characters, absent mothers, loneliness and uncomfortable family relationships.

I’m intrigued enough to suggest I might have to get a copy of the book.

“Here,” says Dawn, “have mine.”

And with that I and my newly-acquired bedtime reading head back out into the cold, leaving them to their discussions. And, of course, their wine, cake and gossip.