How I Started a Book Group for Men
As a child I read factual books voraciously. I started with Ladybird books which, to a large degree, reflected my childhood: both of my grandfathers were miners and I read People at Work - The Miner so I knew what they did underground; I grew up in Durham so I read The Story of our Churches and Cathedrals. However, my Ladybird library was large and varied. As a child of the Apollo era, and after seeing the last man walking on the moon in 1972 with Apollo 17, I then moved on to 'How and Why Wonder Books' and learnt about The Stars and Planets and Interplanetary Travel. Next I devoured the 'Tell Me Why' books by the exotically-named Arkady Leokum. I remember in 1977 being disappointed when measles (or some such malady) prevented me from going on a school trip to the Lake District, but being delighted in equal measure when my parents bought me Lots More Tell Me Why to cheer me up. It still sits on the shelf in our study. Even in my mid and late teens I preferred factual books to fiction (which may explain a vaguely mis-spent period of my life when I gravitated towards local pub quizzes in a team that had its fair share of wins).
My Dad was an English teacher who loved reading so our house was always full of the kinds of books to which children should ideally be exposed. We had books by Graham Greene, Shakespeare, George Orwell, Dickens, Leon Uris and Mark Twain, to name but a few. However, my focus generally remained on the factual side of things and I can remember my Dad trying to nudge me gently in the direction of fiction to supplement my factual cravings.
In about 2004 my wife announced that she was joining a local book group comprising about eight ladies in our immediate vicinity. I watched jealously as they gathered every six weeks or so in the comfort of someone's living room to discuss the latest literary choice, my wife then coming home and regaling me with tales of lively debates, wine and a précis of the neighbourhood news. It did occur to me that this could provide a most agreeable template for a male group comprising a few of my friends, and that this would be the ideal cover for regular meetings at which we could drink beer, eat Scotch pies and discuss football.
99 books and over 11 years later we're still going strong and meet every 5 or 6 weeks to discuss the latest choice
Our inaugural meeting was held at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2006 when we heard the late, great Iain Banks reading from his latest novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale. There and then the five of us decided to launch our 'book group', convening a month later to discuss The Wasp Factory. We did indeed discuss football, drink red wine (not beer) and eat tasty morsels, but we were, and remain genuinely hooked by the 'book' part of the 'book group'. 99 books and over 11 years later we're still going strong and meet every 5 or 6 weeks to discuss the latest choice, drink red wine, eat, and talk about football (although not always in that order, I must confess). We've read everything from War and Peace to Paul Merson's autobiography; from David Lodge to Mary Shelley and taking in authors such as Ken Follett, Robert Graves, Thomas Hardy, Kate Atkinson, Ian Fleming, Claire North, Philip Pullman and Joseph Heller. The genres are many and none, the choices fairly random (to the casual observer) and the range of marks awarded out of 10 runs from 1.4 (The Hare with the Amber Eyes) to 9.25 (Animal Farm).
The simple rules
The simple group rules are:
- when it's your choice, you nominate one book and don't present a range from which the other members choose;
- you must read the book even if you can't stand it;
- the host provides the red wine and other sustenance.
We've toyed with the idea of a joint male/female meeting to bring my wife's group together with our own, but diary clashes have so far made that impossible. (It's difficult enough to co-ordinate our five diaries as it is). Perhaps we should re-double our efforts, but in the meantime my book group and the wine-and-pie-fuelled chat of old friends remain one of my greatest pleasures. I also know that my Dad was quietly pleased that his nudge in the fictional direction finally paid off.