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.