Reading groups are some of an author’s greatest friends. They may be organised by libraries or bookshops, or just set up by like-minded people who want to explore books together. Modern technology means the members no longer have to meet in person, though of course it is much more fun when they do. Deirdre Watchorn tells the story of how her international reading group works.
Q: What inspired you to set up / join your reading group? How many members does it have? Did you all know each other already? Had you belonged to other reading groups previously?
A: The book group idea came from my Czech friend, Katka. Her husband is American and had been running his own book group for about three years… but with men only! Katka decided she would like to be in a book group and the only way to do this was to set one up herself. She then extended the invitation to me and various other women she knew, including a wife of one of the ‘men’s book club’ members (!) who was also jealous of her husband’s book club. None of us had been in groups before and didn’t know what to expect. We had heard stories of the men’s book club – that they stayed up until 4 am in the morning, sometimes discussing very heavy literature and drinking lots. But I don’t think any of us had any expectations in the beginning about what ours would be like.
The reason I joined is that I used to be an avid reader on my daily commute into town when I lived in London. But once I moved to Berlin and gave up work for a few years, I hardly picked up a book. My concentration was in pieces. I was intrigued to see if the book club could reignite my love for reading.
Q: I understand the members live in more than one country. How does the group operate? Do you mostly meet virtually? Do you meet in person?
A: Apart from during the pandemic, we always meet in person in Berlin at least every 4-6 weeks. The group is made up of one Czech, one Belarussian, two Germans and two Brits. We also had an American member, but she moved away from Berlin a few years ago. During lockdown, we continued to run our book groups over Zoom and it usually worked really well! Even our American friend, now living in Brussels, continued to join us for some meetings as a special guest! We have taken short breaks away together, with themed books to match. We have become such good friends over the past seven years. I love my book club!
Q: How do you choose the books you read? Is there consensus on this or do you take turns to choose? Do you ever really dislike the book that has been chosen? If so, do you continue to read it to the end? Do you always choose fiction, or do some of the books you read belong to non-fiction categories? Do you all buy the book selected? If so, is it usually in hard copy format or do you buy ebooks as well?
A: It’s a very democratic process. We each take it in turn to lead the club, in strict rotation! The person leading needs to come up with a list of at least five titles, email them to all members and then the members vote on which one to read. If there is a draw, we take a straw poll on WhatsApp. At the very first meeting we decided we’d read only fiction and we have stuck with that. The only thing we sometimes discuss in advance is what theme the books for the next book club meeting should be. That for me is one of the most exciting parts, deciding on a theme and then seeing which books are put forward.
Yes, we tend buy the books to read, in print, although sometimes we share books between us, especially if they are expensive – i.e., only just published or hard to get hold of in Berlin. One of our members works in a school library so there have been occasions where she has provided the books for us to read, which is helpful! We rarely read ebooks. One of the members will sometimes read one on her phone but I could never do that.
I am known for being the most critical of the books we read! It’s quite rare that I ‘love’ a book we have chosen. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy reading all the books and indeed that for me is the beauty of the group, getting to read things I would never dream of picking up otherwise – classics, for example. I almost always read a book to the end. It’s disrespectful to the author if you don’t. But I am also a very quick reader.
Q: How long do you allow to read a book? Is there a fixed time – e.g., one month – or do you vary it?
A: We aim to hold the group every 4-6 weeks, but it does vary. I’m a very fast reader, some others (no names mentioned!) less so. As many of the group are non-native English speakers, we have a rule that if a book is over 500 pages long, we mention this when making the selection, so people don’t get a nasty surprise when they buy it.
Q: Do you always read books in English, or are some of the books you choose in other languages as well?
A: We have always them in English, even if the books were originally written by German authors or authors from other countries. This means a lot of the titles which are suggested are from US and UK authors, but we are conscious of this and try to internationalise as much as we can.
Q: Is the group’s discussion about the book pretty much spontaneous, or do you suggest themes or topics about the book prior to your discussion? Do you ever use the sets of questions about the book that some authors include – either at the end of the book itself or on their own or their publishers’ websites?
A: We agree never to discuss the book before the meet up, even if we see each other beforehand. The person leading starts the discussion and we go around the table. To be honest, we have never used the questions at the back of the book. I don’t know why! Probably because we have never been short of ideas or things to talk about. Some of us will have done some further research on a topic online, to find out about the author or the story and we bring those discussions into the group. But there is no set format. Some of the group studied literature at university, so it’s always interesting to hear their observations. But my favourite discussions are those that lead into other topics about life, the world and everything. Our first book, The Circle, was very memorable, not because we liked the book all that much, but because it prompted huge debate about social media and the damaging impact it has had on our lives.
Q: Is there one book that stands out above others as the one the whole group really enjoyed?
A: It’s really hard to remember. I know many of us disliked Mood Indigo, a French classic which was just too random to follow. We all enjoyed Station Eleven, a story about the collapse of civilisation and the aftermath. And also the novel Blindness, which we read just before the start of the pandemic. Maybe that’s our book club’s main theme: death and the end of civilisation.
Q: What are your own favourite types of book? Do you like crime or other kinds of genre fiction, or are your tastes more literary?
A: I’m a big fan of contemporary American literature: authors like John Updike, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Tyler, stories with quirky characters in everyday settings. But I like to read a real mix. At the moment, I am reading Elena Ferrante, Damon Galgut and Marion Keyes. I read a lot of crime novels in my twenties and have not felt the urge to return to that genre since. But never say ‘never’.
Q: What advice would you give someone thinking of setting up a reading group? Do you have any advice for authors?
A: Just do it! Don’t mull over the format too much or what titles to read. The group will develop organically, reflecting the membership. But do ensure you do spend time talking about the book at each meeting! I know of book clubs that were more about the wine than the books and unsurprisingly they fizzled out. Talking about the book helps strengthen the relationships between the members, too. In terms of advice for authors, I don’t have any I’m afraid… and I don’t think they need any. Creating these amazing characters and worlds is more than enough for us (thankful) readers.