Grumpy thoughts on Book Clubs from 2006 in the SAU Blog

Well, perhaps not that grumpy. The link to the “long list” of One Book books is now broken, I’m afraid. I think I am more benign about this idea now – after all, they weren’t exactly forcing everyone to read the same book, were they? Though the bit quoted about the Bristol One Book project strikes me even more forcefully as the height of parochialism

One Nation unified under a Book Club – Seamus Sweeney considers the “One Book” project in the United States and what it says about American literary tastes

“Print is dead”, pronounced no less an authority than Dr Egon Spengler of the Ghostbusters in 1984, and every so often some futurologist or other pops up to tells us with either enthusiasm or dolefulness that the book will be extinct in a few years. I remember as a child encountering one of my mother’s copies of Readers Digestwhich carried an article on the trends of the eighties, among which was the extinction of the book by 1983. The book has lived on twenty-three years, despite the prognostic authority of Readers Digest, somewhat in the manner of the ordinary citizenry of Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, who delighted in the game Keep To-Morrow Dark:

which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet”.

Defying the punditocracy that was as much a feature of the scene one hundred years ago as it is today.

For something supposedly on its last legs, the book is awfully popular. From Harry Potter to The Da Vinci Code, the stories with the greatest impact, that for better or for worse tell us most about our preoccupations and fears, are still written. It may have moved well beyond its original scope as an online bookseller, but it is surely significant that Amazon, the most successful New Economy retailer, is still known primarily for books. And consider the book club. Let a thousand book clubs bloom – they are all, further evidence of the rude health of the book.

There is something very admirable about the self-organising book club, where a group of friends or workmates get together every month of so to discuss a book all have read, at its best serious minded about literature while sociable and light-hearted. Book clubs are sociable, encourage a certain amount of critical thinking, require little by way of budget except access to books, and are a happy example of small scale cultural activity. They do not need arts administrators and have blossomed without much by way of central planning.

Or do they? There are book clubs, and there are Book Clubs. There are those that bear the imprimaturs of the deities of daytime TV – Richard & Judy, Oprah – and which have become possibly the greatest single factor in determining best seller status. Book clubs on a mass scale – as part of arts festivals, or as part of “reading promotion” initiatives – are increasingly being promoted by arts administrators and such.

Although the celebrity book clubs no doubt encourage reading, I can’t help preferring the modesty of the small group of friends. LikeTrinny and Susannah or Supernanny, the celebrity book club seems to make another step in the regulation by the televisual oracles of ordinary, everyday activities that people formerly did for themselves in their own way. Another Chesterton thought – that those who no longer believe in God do not believe in nothing, but believe in everything – springs to mind when one looks at the seeming arbitrariness of those chosen to be oracles. Why should Oprah or Richard’s literary taste be an exemplar?

Even less attractive, at least to temperaments such as mine, is the book club organised on the scale of a town, city, state or some other defined “community”. (Am I the only one who finds it somewhat bullying the way we are all being trammelled into various “communities”? A word supposed to evoke warm and fuzzy feelings of togetherness seems instead to simply reinforce contemporary anomie.) The entire population of Bristol, for instance, have, it seems, been forced to read Around the World in Eighty Days over the last few months as part of something called The Great Reading Adventure:

Between January and March each year, everyone in Bristol is encouraged to read the same book. The book chosen is one that is either set in Bristol, is by a Bristol author, or is about issues that are of interest to people in Bristol. Books so far that have been chosen are Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (partially set in Bristol), John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (which allowed debate about environmental issues and GM technology) and Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, which promoted learning and debate about the Second World War.

There’s something about the parochialism and presumption that literature is only of interest when dealing with various “issues” that would turn one off the idea of the book club, let alone the kind of city-wide book club exemplified by the Great Reading Adventure. One wonders who decides on the “issues that are of interest to people in Bristol,” One is rather chilled by the worthiness that sees works of literature as primarily about “allowing debate” (one would imagine debate on GM technology was firmly prohibited until Bristolians were allowed to read Wyndham’s sci-fi opus) and “promoting learning and debate”. Perhaps Bristolian readers can inform us if the experience was more pleasurable than it sounds.

Book promotions of this kind have been going on for some time in the United States. Perusing the enormous list of “One Book” books, one is struck by the literacy of the supposedly philistine United States. Of course, one wonders what percentage of the population actually participate in the promotion, but that could be said of every country. Commentators have often noted the American engagement with the word, unsurprising in the “shining city on a hill”, haunted equally by the Bible and the words of the Framers of the Constitution.

In his Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman compiled examples of the devotion to the word of “Typographic America”. Alexis De Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America:

The invention of firearms equalized the vassal and the noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the place.

Dickens, on his 1842 visit to America, wrote to a friend that:

I can give you no conception of my welcome. There never was a King or Emperor upon earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, and entertained at splendid balls and dinners and waited on by public bodies of all kinds. If I go in a carriage, the crowd surrounds it and escorts me home; if I go to the theatre, the whole house rises as one man and the timbers ring out.

Postman’s contention was, of course, that the Age of Typography had been followed by the Age of the Image, less conducive to rational thought and more conducive to emotive manipulation. For all the truth of this proposition, America is still a nation in thrall to the word. While it would be a stretch to claim them as great literary genres, it is instructive that the fundamentally old-fashioned and literary email and the blog are the internet media that have been adopted most enthusiastically. Would-be Presidential candidates, even now, write books outlining their vision for America as part of the attempt to generate buzz.

One presumes that local librarians were the major arbiters of literary judgement. After all, the perennial librarians’ favourite Fahrenheit 451 was chosen for no less than twenty six towns. Over the course of my schooling, English teachers showed Dead Poet’s Society at least thrice, presumably partly because of the noble, heroic and indeed tragic vision of the teaching of English portrayed therein.Fahrenheit 451 is the librarians’ Dead Poet’s Society. The popularity of a certain political persuasion – witness the many towns who read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed – is also evident.

It is not hard to see the appeal of Rosalynn Carter’s First Lady from Plains to the citizens of Colombus, Georgia. Bangor, Maine, also seems keen to read about Maine, with Thoreau’s The Maine Woodsand local boy Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. The list is far from parochial, indeed memoirs from around the world feature. America’s engagement in the Middle East is very evident, with Khaled Hosseini’s Kabul set The Kite Runner second only to To Kill a Mockingbird in terms of the numbers of communities which chose it, and titles like Diana Abu-Jaber’s Crescent featuring heavily throughout.

The work of Mitch Alborn – whose Tuesdays With Morrie was chosen by nineteen communities from Long Beach to Duluth – exemplifies a certain worthiness about many of the books, a sense that books are primarily about learning Important Life Lessons. One begins to admire those communities that chose the works of David Baldacci and other thriller writers – though the absence of Dan Brown is perhaps something to be celebrated.

There’s a lack of American classics from before the nineteen-sixties, Twain, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald featuring (there’s something very apt about those places which read The Great Gatsby – St Paul, Minnesota, Long Island and Scranton, Pennsylvania) but no Hemingway or Henry James, or Poe, or Education of Henry Adams, orWalden. In terms of the Classics classics there is Sophocles. Unsurprisingly enough, the play is Antigone – almost too obvious as kindling for discussions on the state versus the individual andcomparisons between Creon and President Bush. There’s no Proust, Joyce or Mann. And no Roth (Joseph, Philip or Henry). An engagement with contemporary literature is admirable, but there’s a deracinated feel to the list, a sense that those choosing the books were above all anxious to be “relevant” and up-to-date.

There is an absence of works of outright humour. No Waugh or Wodehouse. No A Confederacy of Dunces. Not much that could be called subversive, from either the left or right, of the overall earnestness – no Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis, for instance. There are few works which could be called books to be read for pure pleasure. Treasure Island, read in Pikes Peak, Colorado, Enfield, Connecticut, and Peabody, Minnesota and the works of Alexander McCall Smith (Precious Ramotswe’s excellent detective agency has inspired the citizens of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Mobile, Alabama) are the ones which spring to mind most.

The America that emerges from the One Book list is serious-minded, worthy, somewhat earnest, but interested in the world around it, concerned about the military engagement that has made Iraqi place names all too familiar to American families. The list is testimony to the sprawling diversity of the vast country that, for all the vigorous vulgarity of its pop culture, still retains a vigorous literacy.

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