On the way home, the two decided to start their own club, the B Team. It’s been going for over a decade, although the name’s had an update. It’s now the Literary Saloon, a nod of course to both the books and the wine which inevitably accompanies each meeting. McCart’s now in two book clubs and her books line the shelves of her purpose-built library.
Of course, not every book club is an unpleasant clique, and book clubs themselves can work to make us better people. Usually.
They make us more empathetic, argues Australian Catholic University literature researcher Maggie Nolan. We react to characters by imagining how they might feel and how we would respond in their circumstances. They are also, we all know, social spaces but more than that. Nolan, whose new research explores ethical reading in book clubs, says there is a quality of earnestness to book clubs, an aspect that encourages us to be exposed to a bigger world, to contribute, to go beyond our ordinary lives. That idea, that reading generates empathy, was so clearly demonstrated last weekend when #authorsforfireys, heartfelt brainwave, if such a thing exists, of Emily Gale and Nova Weetman, raised thousands and thousands of dollars for bushfire relief, for firefighters and for communities.
Nolan says: “There’s a fair bit of research to suggest that reading in general generates empathy. Book clubs enable people to reflect on that process.”
Trent Dalton, author of the extraordinary Boy Swallows Universe, pitched in with both empathy and concrete offers. He tweeted: “To highest bidding Bris book club, I’ll drop this signed French Boy Swallows Universe to ur house w bottle French champagne, read some (in French), tell backstory (in English), then give u preview of my next book, All Our Shimmering Skies. Bids below! All 4 CFA”
A few tweets later, “my ego writing cheques my body can’t cash”, Dalton volunteered to sing Piaf at the winning book club. He can’t even speak French let along sing it, but he claims his uncle-in-law will coach him by Skype from Paris.
Dalton has a certain tenderness for book clubs: “The secret of Boy Swallows Universe’s success is Brisbane book clubs. I have no doubt that the story of the book and where it went to and got to all started out from Brisbane book clubs and recommending it to other book clubs, where they could all get together and talk about places they knew. I see the power of book clubs and I’m a true believer.”
He owes them and this was one way of paying back while giving forward. Of course, an amiable war broke out. Book club outbid book club. And when the hammer landed, Ava January’s club won, fitting because the club’s first book was Boy Swallows Universe (the winning bid was a happy surprise for January’s book clubmates). McCart’s other club, Softback Sorority, came second. January, who gives Boy Swallows Universe to everyone she knows, soon scooped them up into one mega-bid of $6250 and the party will be held at McCart’s house, in the library that seats 40 and also has a convenient piano for the Piaf.
This then, is the empathy expressed. Of course, the internal workings of book clubs are not always so lovely, as McCart discovered all those years ago. Are there book club rules? How do clubs recruit new members?
Victorian secondary teacher Luke Herring was invited to be part of a newish book club a few years back, based in Melbourne’s south-east. He ended up moving 40 kilometres away, then tried to leave because the commute to book club on a Sunday night was daunting. Godfather memes ensued. The club is built on an extended friendship circle and Herring says he’s glad he stayed because of the company, yes, but also because of the quality of the discussions and the initiation rites.
“We joke that we have a hazing ritual for new members, which involves reading Charlotte Roche’s notorious erotic fiction Wetlands, which was our featured book about 10 years ago, and most of us found memorable but ludicrous.”
Herring’s club, more or less gender-balanced, comes to a consensus about which books to read – although he claims one member has the power of veto (I checked with the member, who cheerfully denies this).
So how do book clubs work when there’s disagreement?
Few of the book clubs whose members spoke to me have set rules but many have a framework. In Sydney’s Darlington, a book club emerged from a seniors exercise group and the 12 members include retired medical specialists, a lawyer, an architect, academics and teachers, a microbiologist. They weren’t friends before the club but they are now. They meet 11 times a year in a rented room at the gym. After a short presentation, each member has the opportunity to comment on the book.
“We’ve tried going around the room, taking turns, but an open discussion has proved to be more popular. Everyone usually has something to say,” says Sandy Donaldson, retired psychologist, who’s been a member of this club for 10 years.
Domination can occur [because of] excitement about the book or sidetracking with irrelevancies…
Book club member Sandy Donaldson
So how do you stop a bunch of experts dominating the conversation? “Domination can occur [because of] excitement about the book or sidetracking with irrelevancies … the one-hour time limit for the rented room (not someone’s house) tends to minimise this.”
Donaldson says members are more vocal in their specialty areas of interest. “We prefer people to have read the book before recommending it.”
Can you really avoid the extrovert dominating the conversation? My favourite response to this question came from 14-year-old Jemma de Vos, whose club in Victoria has been going for about 18 months. The group used to be a lot bigger, now it’s about four or five. But in the beginning, they would just talk all over the top of each other.
Then they agreed on a process. They pass around a fork and whoever holds the fork holds the fort.
At academic Madeleine Laming’s book club, the only rule is this: discussion about the book first and only then, conversations about children and partners.
Nicely done. Rules but not too many. And as January puts it, it’s about connecting and mobilising. More than reading, but also that.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.