I’ve been in book clubs since I was in my late 20s. Always all women. I wouldn’t say that reading books is/was entirely incidental to these groups but I always found it to be secondary to the pleasure of being with a group of friends.
The first one I joined in Brussels was a very sophisticated affair with hard books and a serious focus. I only got in because they wanted some more English speakers. I quite enjoyed it though all of the other members were slightly terrifyingly beautiful (all Dutch and Swedish bar me and my English friend) and had very impressive jobs (our biggest coup was a Dutch MEP – look I was in my 20s we were all a lot more impressionable then). We read worthy books around a theme and if it was your turn to lead debate, then you read the book and wrote up reading notes for the others. Once a year we had a black tie dinner with partners. Yes, really.
When I came back to Ireland in 2000, I missed the camaraderie of the Dutch (really it was basically Dutch – v organised and immensely thorough) book club and set up one with my friends in Dublin. This is still going strong – first Monday of the month for nearly 20 years. We take a relaxed approach to reading the book. Mostly at least one person has not read the book and, on at least one occasion, no one had read the book. It makes me really happy because without this book club I think I would have lost contact with a lot of my friends from that time, just because we’re all busy and lots of us have children. When I came back from my stint in Brussels in 2008, I rejoined seamlessly. I love it. [A parenthesis here – did I set up another book club while I lived in Brussels between 2003 and 2008? I most certainly did.] We have a core group – lots of lawyers – and a revolving cast of members who come and go. Three of our core group are sisters and I am almost certain one of our revolving cast left in horror because she heard them talking to each other without knowing they were sisters. Sister one remarked that sister two’s new coat was not a success and sister three agreed. There was then a discussion of sister one’s new haircut and all three agreed that it was probably a mercy she wore a wig for work. I could see new member thinking that this was a tough school.
And then, eight or nine years ago, a friend of Mr. Waffle’s invited me to join her book club. This was different again – held about once every six weeks on a Sunday afternoon, always in our foundress’s beautiful, beautiful house – this is one where everyone reads the book and we have a very structured discussion about it and then go next door to the dining room and have the most wonderful afternoon tea. In the course of this we discuss weighty political topics and current affairs but also all sorts of gossip. It’s lovely to make a group of new friends in your 40s. Mr. Waffle’s friend (he sometimes says plaintively ‘she is my friend, it’s very unfair that you see so much of her’ – I think of her as a shared resource) is from Limerick so many of the members of the group are from there also and as my mother was from Limerick there’s something about their voices and expressions that remind me of her. They’re a diverse bunch with a couple of media people so they always have excellent gossip. The Sunday before last was the book club’s tenth anniversary and there was a book club quiz (I love a quiz) and a goody bag for each member with a bottle of gin from the Isle of Harris (our foundress’s husband is half Scottish); various cards and bookmarks and a mug. I nearly died of happiness. It was the surprise and the delightful nature of it.
I was reflecting the other day for women and men of my generation our mothers played tennis and golf and bridge but for my children’s generation, their mothers will all have been in book clubs. I wonder whether the days of book clubs are numbered or whether they will be with us forever?