Reading Groups
All I don't want for Christmas is a book. Get me soap, get me scented bloody coat hangers, get me a membership to porcelain kitty of the month club, but just nothing from the best-seller's list. No biographies, no travelogues, nothing by a female columnist with a quirky cartoon stilettos on the front, and nothing about goddesses of the kitchen, bedroom or otherwise. The only thing I might consider would be a self-help book. Something along the lines of: how to wean yourself off reading groups.
Over the past three years they have proliferated on both sides of the Atlantic. Oprah Winfrey's reading group is so powerful that writing one of her recommended titles is the author's equivalent of winning the Publisher's Sweepstakes. Almost everyone I know is in a reading group. In fact, almost everyone I know is in mine.
Now it's not that I don't actually enjoy my group - but here's the thing: It's the group I love. The reading, however, has become increasingly problematic. What began as a life-line three years ago, started by two can-do dynamic and disparate women, has started to pull a little too tightly at the throat of my non-existent intellect. How much longer can I sit there and say nothing pertinent about the book? These women have minds and don't mind speaking them. I, on the other hand, put my mind down somewhere in 1985 and I can't remember where I left it. But if you find my car keys, my lost youth, and my hip-bones, it's sure to be in the same pile.
Reading is one of the few fun things you can do alone with the lights on which doesn't involve either food or alcohol. It's the only solitary joy that can be discussed in polite society. But when it turns into literary criticism, I want to turn the lights off. It's certainly interesting to read a book in context, or to understand who the author is, or get a feel for their whole body of work. I like the little biographies, I don't even mind the study notes, but if I'm honest, I'm much more Oprah than Open University.
From a book, I want escape. I want to live another life for the space of 300 odd pages. It's like sex. I want to forget myself and be someone else. But just as in real life when the process of writing letters to friends becomes a tiresome exercise in reworking the mundanity of days I would rather forget, I really can't be fagged to relive the book all over again.
Furthermore, although there are books I've enjoyed rereading, like our little Graham Greene retrospective, and authors whose names, if I could only remember them, I'm sure I've been happy to be introduced to, there are other authors I never want to read again this side of Hell. Apart from American Pastoral, I am all Rothed out with post-middle aged male sexuality, and please - after Cold Mountain, enough with the scenery. It has reached the point that when we collectively decide on our next book - a protracted process that would put the UN security Council to shame - even when it's a novel that I long to read - I immediately go off the idea. It's like homework and essays and watching all the bright girls say really clever things in words with five syllables when I haven't done my prep.
But here's the dilemma. I do adore all the value added chat that comes after the book. We started off with ten women, but like the ten little Indians, our original number has slowly dwindled. Since the group began we've been through a lot together. We've had some stratospheric career changes, several geographical locations, three and a half babies, marital discord, domestic harmony and numerous, but ever changing, alliances. We've fallen into love and fallen out of friendship. We've had committees, secretaries and reading lists, and throughout the whole enterprise an earnest quest for self improvement. From these women I not only learned about plot and characterisation, but more importantly I was also initiated into the divine secrets of the Yack Yack sisterhood.
After we'd finished with the book, we finally got down to life, love and the pursuit of smooth legs. Forget Proust and tell me about Pilates, wax lyrically about depiliation and recite the names of all your sexual partners. More serious matters were also discussed, but I usually managed to miss those while replenishing my plate and/or glass in the hostesses kitchen
So, you know how it is. You love them, but you know it isn't working anymore. You're not pulling your intellectual weight. Your making excuses like an adulterous lover for missing the meetings, then skimming just the first and last chapters so you can pretend to have read the book. You no longer love them for their mind - it's their body-talk you really, really want. But every time I try to leave I find myself begging to be taken back because I miss all that wonderful sisterly solidarity.
But since my friend, a co-founder left to found a matriarchal dynasty instead, I've decided to go and start a new rival group with four like-minded friends. We shall dispense with the book and meet to dish the dirt in a different restaurant every month, calling ourselves the Bitches Club and inviting guest bitches along to spice things up. The founding members have already dubbed themselves Selfish, Superior and Sarcastic. And as for me - well I'm just going to be Shallow.