I’ve always been a member of a book club. Not the same one through the years. But just as one crumbles and disappears, a second arises phoenix-like from its ashes.
Book clubs — the smaller ones — are usually ephemeral. They last for a few years perhaps, or maybe only a few months. When a member or two leave because they’ve moved away to another town or another area the book nexus too breaks up. But if (like me) you are always in search of like-minded people, it won’t be long before you find another set of book lovers, and voila! Before you can say Jack Robinson or William Shakespeare, you are truly and firmly ensconced within the cosy arms of another group of readers.
A book club brings together an assortment of individuals all united by their love of reading. The group of which I am a member consists of a motley bunch, an all-women team from different walks of life and different nationalities. We all have our own take on issues, coloured, of course, not just by the country and culture we grew up in, but also our own individual perception. It’s like a mini United Nations except that we are above and beyond petty politics and express our opinion freely and openly, without fear of judgement or ridicule.
Take, for example, a recent book we discussed, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Written by a African American female writer, one of the themes this book throws up is racism. Now, this promoted a lively discussion about how we as individuals have dealt with racism or racist remarks. Another recent read, the Booker-prize winning Milkman by Anna Burns, led to an open conversation about sexual harassment and sexual assault, and the #metoo movement that has been in the news of late.
It is not just award-winning books that we discuss. It can be a favourite old classic like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or a translated book like Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag. Every book brings up a different topic, different opinions and reactions. Some may like a book, some may not. There are divergent views and opinions. But unlike politics which can create some very unpleasant, often even violent, discussions, a book club discussion may be heated but it rarely ever breaks the norms of polite or civil behaviour.
One of the best stories about book clubs is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The story tells of a motley group of people in Guernsey, an island in the English Channel, which was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. During this occupation, the island-dwellers, defying the curfew, met to discuss the few books which were available to them, and yes, ‘feasted’ on potato peel pie in those food-strapped days. Some of the members of this society were far from literate, but during these meetings, they always found a book they could identify with. Their meetings were a testament to the indomitable human spirit and to the healing power of literature.
Our little book club — and the numerous others in every city and every country around the world - may not be meeting under such dramatic circumstances, but they achieve the same outcome — they provide a welcome break from the cares of everyday life and foster tolerance and understanding. In their own small ways, they fulfil the same function as the public libraries which are important educational, social and cultural institutions.
And that, my dear reader, is the beauty of a book club. In this day and age, when the world is no longer a comfortable or stable place (if it ever was), and darkness seems to have descended on people’s minds and hearts, something as simple and civil as a book club reinstates one’s faith in human nature.
Padmini B. Sankar is a Dubai-based freelance writer.