Members of The No-Pressure Book Club are forgiven for not reading their books, or forgetting to bring a book to a meeting, or not attending for months on end (life, you know). This gives some meetings a refreshing intimacy.
I belong to a book club. Ours is not one of those portals to revelry, where women end up drinking and dancing on tables to Belinda Carlisle and forget to talk books. No. The No-Pressure Book Club really is about literature, despite the fact that membership can be thin on the ground at times.
We set the bar low, in a good way. Launched about a decade ago by a psychologist friend of mine (I guess the title gives that away), it's a fluid, friendly association consisting of a few invited members. We meet approximately once a month at a member's home, all contributing a snack so as not to burden anyone with hostessing anxiety. We each take one book we recommend or have heard is a worthwhile read (a second-hand book is perfectly acceptable) and tell the others about it. We like literary fiction and well-written, stimulating non-fiction, and you can throw your used magazines into the ring too, along with your pride, as there's usually a taker for those. We're renowned for only reading the literary best-sellers once all the hype has died down, usually two to three years after publication.
At the No-Pressure Book Club, nobody takes offence if members don't have time to read a book. For six months. Or forget to bring a book. Or forget to attend a meeting because they're engrossed in an erotic romance, and I don't mean a novel. There have also been long stretches where members too distracted by, say, new love or a white-knuckle life crisis, announce, 'No books for me; I'm just taking a magazine this month'. It's all okay.
Book clubs are a phenomenon here in South Africa as books are expensive; a club allows members to share the cost of books. Typically, our club consists of a small group of women, but we once had as a member an American guy who was working in Cape Town for an NGO. The fact that he looked like Barack Obama's hot younger brother and gave intellectually rigorous analyses of the works of weighty US authors kept attendance high. It was reminiscent of The Jane Austen Book Club, though our man left after a year to take up a place at an opera school in New York. He sang arias at his last book club meeting.
We have had marriages, pregnancies, births, divorces, mid-life crises, illnesses – the best of times, the worst of times. Occasionally there are only two of us at a meeting, my psychologist friend and me. The Core, as we refer to ourselves, catch up on our lives over snacks and tea. As my friend pondered at one of those intimate gatherings, 'I sometimes wonder if book club would continue if there was just one of us.'
'Yes, I think so,' I said. 'We're committed.'
'I could do it,' she mused. 'I could make snacks and tea, as usual, and hold book club for one. Write down which titles I'd taken out in the little black book. Select some new ones from the stock.'
In these times of Kindles and short attention spans, one must be flexible.
For me as a writer, it's also interesting to note how diversely people read books. There are those members who doggedly read a book to the end ('The author spent all that time writing it; they must have had something important to say,' one member explained. Personally, I have no qualms about abandoning a book if I run out of mood or feel the plot is sagging, or dropping it on the second page if I suspect I made a selection error). And there are those who glance at the last page to see the ending – jokes! Nobody in our book club would ever do that.
What binds the members is that we like to read books and then discuss them, turning a solitary activity into a shared experience. I remember a member hovering over me as I surveyed the table of books at a meeting, urging in a fervid whisper, 'Oh please, please read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer. I need someone to talk to about it. It got quite weird at the end and I need to debrief.'
Which explains why many women and some men across the country meet monthly in this way: because humans love to sit down and be told a story by a master storyteller, and in world where books are relocating from paper to pixel, that's something that will never change.
Catriona Ross is the author of several books, including the just-published ebook, Story Star: How to write your first novel and use the uncanny power of fiction to turn your wishes into reality.