If two years ago you’d have asked me whether I’d join a book club, your ears would likely be met with an endless rant about the pretentious nature of the reading clubs, the dreariness of the literature class-esque discussions therein, or how not every book needs deconstruction, that one can simply read for the sheer purpose of enjoyment.
I hated – nay, loathed – book clubs.
But ask today, going on a year as a member of one, the response is different. I have even grown to be one of those not-so-pleasant individuals that punctuate their every conversation with, “Oh, we read that in my book club last month.” Or “We’re reading that in my book club now,” or “Someone in my book club recommended that book but I haven’t read it.”
Although I did (and still do) often end up talking about books with my close friends, I have always considered reading to be a solitary affair, best devoured curled up in a cosy corner, with a cup of whatever beverage, shut away from the rest of the world. As such, the idea of being huddled up in a group dissecting plot lines, arguing over favourite passages and analysing characters was never a welcomed one to me. The few attempts at reading clubs – including a virtual one – bored the hell out of me. Moreover, the residual trauma from the high school English classes further suspended any excitement at the notion of book clubbing.
You see, my idea of a book club was always informed by the Jane Austen Book Club movie, a romantic drama film written and directed by Robin Swicord that storifies the lives of five women and one man who meet at one another’s house to study Jane Austen novels over a period of some six months. Their discussions were often intercut with details of their private lives, shared over wine. And so I always imagined book clubs to be this cathartic experience amongst friends, interlaced with copious amounts of wine and peppered with some gossip.
As a reformed book club snob, I’ve since come to see that one can go to book clubs for lots of different reasons—mine is just one. But first, to why I stayed on, almost a year down the line, despite my obvious initial resentment for this revered pastime.
10. Get Out of a Funk
Reading has always been an integral part of my being—it’s my escape from reality; my tour around the world; my history class; and so much more. But in the last couple of years as school, work, and life took priority, reading for pleasure fell to the wayside. My literary interactions were reduced to tweets, Instagram captions and when I was feeling extremely indulgent, I’d click on the ‘read more’ on the long Facebook posts.
On the off chance that I did grab a book, I’d abandon it after a few pages in. In fact, I have one book that I read for almost four years. It wasn’t a long read nor conceptually heavy. I had just gotten into the terrible habit of not finishing reading books and before I knew it, the trait stuck. Safe to say I embodied the words of Nancy Pearl’s—librarian and author of Book Lust— in a way she did not intend. Nancy, acknowledging that the world of books is immense and time is short to waste on a dull book, devised the “Rule of 50”, which states that “If you still don’t like a book after reading through the first 50 pages, set it aside”.
That I did, dull or otherwise.
9. There’s Wine!
I like to say (just as I have up there) that I joined the book club for the books and the camaraderie of like-minded beings in the hope that it betokens a focused individual with a firm grasp on adulting. But really, it’s for the wine. Wine pairs well with everything, from food to your broken heart and even books. This may not be the Jane Austen Book Club where we sit and share our feelings. But if you need a cabernet sauvignon to wash down a tepid read, all you have to do is fire up your M-PESA.
8. There Is Gossip, But About The Characters.
Gossip is good for the soul. A soupçon of gossip with your books? Even better. A book club is like sitting around gossiping about people, only that the subjects of your tittle-tattle are characters in a book—which I guess is more meaningful. We do use the ‘gossip’ as jumping-off points for discussing broader social issues, but this sometimes veers into people adding their own experiences, which can be juicy details— a win for me.
7. I Don’t Need To Fake It
Whenever I try to read a book and just can’t care enough to finish it, or whenever adulting gets in the way – as it usually does, I never have to lie or feel guilty about it. And I am never alone. One interesting fella that comes to the meetings reads the books after the sessions. He attends the meetups every other month, and sits through the discussions, barely saying a word. It’s from the discussions that he decides if a book is worth buying and reading. His rationale, which I found impressive, is that books are expensive and his hard-earned dime can only be spent on a worthy read.
6. I Don’t Have To Commit
The way our book club is set up is such that it’s open to everyone and anyone. There is, of course, an optimum number allowed (pre-sign-ups) because of limited space and also so that discussions do not become too unwieldy but save for a few usual suspects and the hosts, you never know who will turn up. There are new faces every other time we meet, and that’s precisely why I like it. And much as I sometimes feel guilty about my sporadic appearances, I really do not feel the need to commit to the group, which would have been a hard bargain had the group comprised a fixed, regular membership.
5. An Excuse For Buying More Books.
It’s true what they say. Buying books and reading books are two very different hobbies. Despite never really keeping up with reading, I always still shopped for books. Our book club being domiciled in a bookshop has not helped either. Books are always in my face, in my way and everywhere. So I buy ‘em, and blame the book club for my habit.
4. I Live For The Drama!
Not to say that our book discussions are mundane fare, but I do love it when we have polarising books. The riff brought about by the books often gets debates going. Rarely will people be swayed to change sides, but it’s still entertaining. Like this one time when we were discussing Okwiri Oduor’s debut novel, Things We Lost and the conversation on colonialism pivoted when someone brought up the idea that without colonisation, Africans would not have had any form of civilization. Claws came out ready for action. Of course, the matter was handled with civility, but I loved the rage and discourse that went down.
3. The People Have A Knack For Relaxed Erudition
(I need to sound like I am in a book club)
Prior to attending my first session, I had this festering apprehension that I might have nothing enlightening to say at all in a book club, or worse, that the session could switch to one of those dry, faux-intelligent attempts I’d imagined (and heard) were characteristic of book clubs. Personally, I abhor those discussions that descend into shouty point-making, with everyone trying to outdo the other in a who-is-more-clever-than-the-other race.
In my book club’s case, discourse first meanders through general thoughts about a book, then we might discuss certain passages, quotes or themes in a more in-depth manner. We explore ideologies. We explore current and past events. We explore social and political ethos. We plumb the depths and scrape the ends of each book with a genuine appreciation for critical thinking and diverse opinions. But never in a way that makes one feel foolish.
2. Meeting Authors
To up the ante, our gracious hosts invite the respective authors to join in the conversations, particularly those who happen to be in Kenya. It’s not always the case but when it happens, it’s a golden opportunity to get the story behind the story, and it can be an absolutely magical experience. Where you felt that the bitter herbs and unleavened bread in an author’s book symbolised suffering, you get the author to tell you that they were in fact, just bitter herbs.
1. Some Books Lend Themselves To Collective Reading
I have enjoyed the discussions about some books more than the book itself. When one of my favourite BookTubers gave a not-so-pleasant review of NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel, Glory, I wasn’t really excited to give it a read. Then the title was picked for the book club. It’s not the gloriest book that I have read so far, but I did enjoy it better having talked about it.
Bonus. I Might Live Longer
Want a longer life? Join a book club.
According to studies published in BMJ Open and from the University of Queensland, belonging to a social group like a book club fosters a greater quality of life and is associated with a longer life. Much as the above studies focused on elderly individuals, the benefits can be extrapolated to include pretty much anyone. Book clubs, and essentially all social groups, can help you when you’re at risk of withdrawing.
In fact, the real reason why I joined a book club was really the people.
In between trying to find my footing at a new job, pandemic fatigue and life generally, I went through a major depressive episode. It wasn’t the first time but it was the most intense yet. When not zombie-ing through the daily demands of adulting, I was hurled up in bed, deep in the pits of despair. Neither the prescribed meds or therapy worked and I was on the brink of a breakdown. I needed a lifeline. There was a multitude of activities I could have picked, but books were familiar territory. I told myself that if I hated the experience, I’d at least still have the books.
So in early 2022, a book club happened. And has kept happening.
Every other last Saturday of the month, I leave my bed and join a bunch of strangers to gossip about made-up characters. I still fancy solitary reading and the interiority that comes with it, but I have also come to appreciate the social aspects of such groups. To sum it up in the sage words of bell hooks “rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.”