the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - macken.deirdre@gmail.com Deirdre Macken

At an in­ter­state din­ner, a friend com­plained about a mem­ber of her book club. “He came once on a trial ba­sis and he just stayed,” she said. “Now he con­trols ev­ery­thing and we can’t get rid of him.” Other mem­bers of the book club around the ta­ble chimed in with tales of his bul­ly­ing, but no one had a so­lu­tion.

We tossed around ideas. Pub­licly det­o­nate the club and se­cretly set it up again. Be­come an online book club. De­clare it an al­co­hol-free club. Or be­come a colour­ing-in book club. Fi­nally, we agreed it was harder to get rid of book club mem­ber than a sit­ting prime min­is­ter.

The book club is a unique so­cial in­sti­tu­tion. No one owns it, there’s no man­age­ment, there are no fees or qual­i­fy­ing at­tributes, there are no se­cret hand­shakes, po­lit­i­cal ties or cool­ing-off pe­ri­ods. It’s a place where be­hav­iour is un­reg­u­lated, pro­to­cols are fuzzy and no one knows how that per­son got to be a mem­ber. In short, it’s the sort of so­cial set­ting that could only de­light Jane Austen.

Af­ter can­vass­ing friends in other book clubs, I’ve come up with a list of ac­cept­able be­hav­iour for mem­bers. These won’t tell you how to run a book club — this is no Emma read­ing — but they may help you avoid literary hi­jack­ers, petty dic­ta­tors and op­por­tunis­tic ther­apy ses­sions.

Get­ting in: Book clubs are usu­ally formed when an old school friend starts to feel mid­dleaged. Al­ter­na­tively, you might re­ceive an in­vi­ta­tion to an ex­ist­ing club. This could be on a trial ba­sis, and if you don’t re­ceive an email in­form­ing you about the next meet­ing, as­sume you didn’t make the grade.

What sort of peo­ple be­long to book clubs: Of­ten they are sin­gle-sex clubs. OK, they are mostly women. This is be­cause there are no knit­ting cir­cles any more. If you hap­pen to be a bloke in a home where a club is be­ing held, then you must go to the pub, the man cave or the sewing room. Your choice.

How to iden­tify the right club for you: Ob­serve the way oth­ers be­have. Some clubs have rules about who speaks first, how long ev­ery­one speaks and whether film ver­sions, lit crits and cheat sheets can be in­cluded in dis­cus­sions. And some clubs are more like meet­ing friends in a bar — if you talk about the book for more than five min­utes, you’ve done the biz.

How to choose a book: Most clubs stick to fic­tion or non­fic­tion, and while some spe­cialise in gen­res, few opt for science fic­tion. Book choices are on ro­ta­tion and it is rec­om­mended books be short­ish with­out be­ing easy reads. If you’re al­ways push­ing for Ursula K. Le Guin when ev­ery­one is keen to fin­ish Ge­orge Eliot’s oeu­vre, you’re in the wrong club.

How to be­have: Read the book, con­trib­ute a few thoughts and don’t ar­rive quot­ing some­thing pithy you’ve just read by Co­lette un­less you be­long to a Jane Austen-es­que club. Most im­por­tant, don’t treat the club as your per­sonal ther­apy ses­sion. If you find your­self re­lat­ing a book about the trau­mas of World War I to your day at the of­fice, chances are you’ve missed the point in Louis de Bernieres’s The Dust that Falls from Dreams.

Cater­ing: This can range from cook­ing a three-course din­ner that should be bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous host’s three-course meal, to snack packs pur­chased from Coles on the way home. Some mem­bers like to theme the food to com­ple­ment the book (Hi­lary Man­tel is a fun choice for this), but be­ware of mak­ing this a rule or you’ll never read Cor­mac McCarthy’s The Road.

How to leave a club: Like Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. To re­sign you have to move in­ter­state, have triplets or get a job that de­mands you work ev­ery first Tues­day at 7pm. None of these is fool­proof: jobs change, air­lines have spe­cial deals and triplets grow up. Most mem­bers sim­ply make ex­cuses for not at­tend­ing for a year or two and then de­clare them­selves too busy.

Guest mem­bers: As a rule, you shouldn’t in­vite friends to a club just be­cause they’re vis­it­ing you on a first Tues­day. And if you find your­self lob­bing into a club event while vis­it­ing an in­ter­state friend, don’t try to solve their prob­lems. Re­mem­ber, you’re not a mem­ber — yet.

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