Magazine article The Spectator

Novel Gazing

Magazine article The Spectator

Novel Gazing

Article excerpt

TONIGHT, somewhere near you, they will be doing it: eight or ten consenting adults, crowded around a kitchen table, going at it hammer and tongs. The chances are they will be in earnest debate over Disgrace, last year's Booker prizewinner. Someone will be arguing that it was a grim, prophetic warning of the impending disintegration of South Africa. Someone else will be complaining that he didn't like the book at all: he couldn't empathise with any of the characters. Some Sauvignon blanc will be drunk, Kettle crisps eaten and, after a couple of hours, everyone will go home feeling well satisfied - another book under the belt.

Before they go, they will have jotted down in their notebooks, Filofaxes and Palm Pilots the name of the book they are going to talk about next time. Captain Corelli's Mandolin would be the perfect choice, only they've done that already. Birthday Letters? Done that too. American fiction? As 1 Lay Dying, Humboldt's Gift, American Pastoral? Or a return to the classics? To the Lighthouse, What Maisie Knew, North and South? Or, if all else fails, there is always Proust.

The book club is becoming educated, middle-class England's favourite night out, more so than the cinema, more than the theatre or opera or restaurants. `To my mind the book club is the most fun a girl can have,' Kimberly Fortier, publisher of The Spectator, recently wrote in the Times. `To get to the book club we have turned down a hefty roster of social and family events: a reception at Downing Street, a book launch, the in-laws' golden wedding anniversary.' She is not alone in her enthusiasm. People en masse are arranging babysitters for the pleasure of visiting the houses of those who are not necessarily friends to listen to their views on a book that they would not themselves have chosen to read.

Ten years ago these clubs were largely a women's thing. Mothers with young children would escape their brain-dead existence for an evening, when they could play out their former lives as educated people in an unthreatening environment. But now everybody is doing it. For every sex, age, special-interest and socio-economic group there is a book club. There are book clubs for oldies; book clubs for middle-aged men with a particular interest in biographies of historical figures; book clubs for New Labour groupies; book clubs for smug married couples; book clubs for Oxbridgeeducated media people; book clubs for minor celebrities; book clubs for pushy career women; and, above all, book clubs for networkers, who will accost you in the office, at a party or by the school gates and say, `I didn't know you knew so and so! They're in my book club.' Just in case there is anyone left who has neither been invited to join a book club nor has the organisational talent to start their own, there are scores of book clubs on the Internet to choose from. Or, as a last resort, there is James Naughtie's Bookclub on Radio Four.

The only people who are not enthusiastic members of book clubs seem to be the under-thirties. Presumably, their idea of an evening's entertainment consists of something more obviously entertaining. For them, the memory of doing English A-levels is fresh enough for the prospect of enforced discussion of a set book to hold no charms whatsoever. For the over-thirties, the popularity of this form of compulsory self-improvement is a puzzle. …

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