We were talking about my friend’s book group round at hers the other day. She was grumbling about it. People keep bringing along new members, without permission. Once one got through, two others tried it. The first newcomer, said my friend, ‘talked about herself for two hours. Of course, she hadn’t read the book’.
The group’s got too big. The problem is what to do; to tell the newcomers they’re not welcome would be a bit rude. This is a group of women doing something pleasant together one evening a month, not close friends. But they have tactics in mind…
Book groups are very popular, if not problem-free. National Reading Group Day is on 30 June and libraries are signing up to showcase the good work they do in this area. Many such groups are far from homogenous all-female, middle class affairs. And the ones I know about don’t seem to have problems choosing books.
You wouldn’t think this reading the Middle Class Handbook blog which advises that you have to avoid anything published pre-1900, or you’ll kill off your book club. As they are assuming that all book clubs are women-only, this is patronising and hilariously sexist. Strange, too, because the Middle Class Handbook blog claims to be a refuge against a rising tide of bad taste, but in a ‘funny’ way – or perhaps only if you have a middleweight, middle-England SOH.
They delightfully assume that if the girls do get off-topic, presumably due to their ‘stuffy’ reading matter not quite sinking in, they will discuss ‘husbands and exes’ or slide away into ‘gossip and what’s on TV’. What rot.
If a book is good, why should it matter when it was published?
Then I read about a ‘pop culture expert’ who says that the word ‘bad’ ceases to have any meaning in a cultural context, in an article on NorthJersey.com:
‘This stuff we consider “bad” is considered bad if we look at it in terms of the criteria set for old-fashioned art. We also have to recognize that some of this stuff that is “bad” is really good at being “bad”,’ says Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.
Hmm, stuff that is good at being bad – Monster Munch crisps are nice once in a while, but if I want good food I’ll stick to wholemeal bread. Crisps aren’t bread. But I’m not sure that ‘bad’ can’t be applied to some things. Take cheese. I don’t understand mild cheddar or the people who buy it. If you like the taste of cheddar, why not get more of it by buying extra-mature? If you like satire – actually, if you like laughing – why put up with bland Rory Bremner when you can get Armando Iannucci? Some things are just better than others. Some things are indeed just weaker versions of the real thing.
You probably like good books if you’ve joined a reading group. So why would you read Shades of Grey when you can read Madame Bovary?
A book is a book, and a good book has good writing, character and plot development. I woudn’t put up with bad writing, clichéd dialogue and poor character development, so why should anyone else? It’s snobbish to say otherwise.
This blog is dedicated to my Dad, Frank Raven (1930-2012), and the times we had together discussing good books.