The Thing About Book Clubs

Despite my being semi-paranoid about partaking in clubs and groups, this post is not about trashing book clubs. That would be too obvious. I have a Groucho Marxian approach to such hobbies: I do not want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.

(At the same time I reserve the right to take offence if I do not receive an invitation. Thank you for your understanding.)

Reading has forever been extremely important to me. I will promise (but will struggle) to understand people who do not read. This time and age do not encourage us to do anything that is not fast-paced or instagrammable. I understand that. Many people I know, myself included, have issues with being able to concentrate. Focusing on a piece of text that does nothing, as in flash, ping or comment is difficult when we have, surrounded by constant sensory overload, gotten used to diverting our attention somewhere else every couple of seconds, much like a nervous goldfish looking for an instant gratification in the form of a like.

Combining literature with a chat with friends and very frequently with some white wine and savoury nibbles thus seems like a very decent halfway house to ease anyone into reading more. Enter book clubs. Whatever it takes to make people read (or listen, as it is these days) more literature I’m totally game. If you need an external incentive to finish a novel, find yourself a book club and be done with it.

We all read and process text in a different way (exhibit: the endless misunderstandings and shouting matches on Twitter), which can make a discussion about a book an interesting exercise. My aversion to book clubs probably derives from the fact that I rarely have the need to exchange views about a book with a group of people. Also, I usually don’t care about other people’s thoughts about any book. Mainly I don’t like others interfering with my reading plans with schedules or suggestions (the whole point of joining a book club, I guess), and I absolutely have no time for Elena Ferrante’s oeuvre (her books seem to be on the curriculum of every single book club under the sun). In short: reading is not a social pasture for me.

Every now and then I get asked for book recommendations (one of the reasons I include books in the blog), but this can easily misfire – it’s akin to someone asking me whether they should cut their hair/get highlights/try a fringe – I mean how the fuck am I supposed to have a view on that? Reading is extremely personal, and I am not a blockbuster-reader (although I do read them on occasion). I am a haphazard and very emotional reader who reads several books at the same time, jumps between rereading old and then some new, and I obsessively immerse myself in certain niches until I have satisfied something particular in my head.

Not only do I read books, but I also read about books and perversely, and considering everything above, have an interest to check out reading lists of some famous people (mainly Obama) and book clubs. I recently came across a semi-secret book club of Finnish industry CEOs (hardly secret now that it was all over the press lately) who get together about 8 times a year to eat dinner and chat literature in exchange of a membership fee of almost €2000. You can imagine how this stirred my curiosity: what literary gems might such an exclusive deal include?

Turns out, their last year’s reading list was a selection of clumsy “leadership for dummies” – garbage – and not a single novel in sight. I do get that this might a club where the CEOs spar with each other about leadership techniques and not so much about literature. And these Finns are not an exception – it is very common to see CEO-reading lists making the rounds in media where literary fiction is blatantly absent. And yes, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow is a great book, but … if novels are the window to human mind, how are you to lead thousands of people without learning about humans and humanity?

(I do hope the annual book club selection was not an exhaustive list of everything these bosses read in 2019.)

I recently returned from London and as I needed a blog illustration, took a picture of the haul. As you can see, it has no consistency and makes little sense, but here you are:

Sarah Bakewell: At the Existentialist Café

Anne Glenconner: Lady in Waiting

Craig Brown: Ma’am Darling

Pico Iver: A Beginner’s Guide to Japan

Janet Malcolm: Nobody’s Looking at You

Charlotte Brontë: Villette

Phoebe Waller-Bridge: Fleabag The Special Edition

Diana Athill: Don’t Look at Me Like That

Rachel Cusk: The Temporary

Taffy Brodesser-Akner: Fleishman is in Trouble

Genius and Ink: Virginia Woolf on How to Read

Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (because special edition)

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (also because special edition)

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