I love to watch people reading on public transport. Not in a weird way, obviously. I love to think they are somewhere else, making a world in their head that only exists to them, talking to people they know as well as they know their friends. I love that they have a tiny portable world in their pocket or bag. It’s easy to think of culture as something we go to, we watch, a spectacle to marvel at, but what about the millions of tiny cultural explosions that happen all over the city everyday?
Nine years ago I set up a book group in Sunderland, as part of New Writing North’s Read Regional scheme. I still remember the first one- sitting, waiting in The White Room (now Josephs on Homeside), wondering if anyone would turn up. But they did- about 30 readers at that first one- and the book group went from strength to strength; members joined and left and joined again, we changed locations a million times, people were ill, had babies, got married, got divorced (not the same person). Life happened, but the book group endured- at least until I had my first baby and was so overwhelmed by all those first parenthood feelings that I couldn’t find space to read anymore. I stopped doing the book group with a heavy heart; I missed it a lot.
Fast forward three years and I have another child, but am now suitably blasé / enured to parenthood that I feel reasonably confident that I can manage one book a month, even if I’m a tad sketchy on some of the finer plot details. I also have an accommodating friend with a beautiful new cafe, Fausto Coffee. The scene was set for a book group revival.
Now, book groups tend to get a bit of a bad rap, caricatured as an excuse for ladies of a certain age to have a glass of wine and a gossip. (I think that’s pure sexism, by the way- yet another way of dismissing middle-aged women- but that’s for another blog). Anyway, we don’t do that at our group. At the first meeting back we talked about the book for a WHOLE HOUR and then recommended books to each other for 20 minutes after that. We really do love books.
And to be honest, we don’t really need to gossip that much. Because somehow, amongst all of this chat about characters and plots and styles, we’ve become real friends, who really missed each other while the group was on hold. When you know what someone thinks about books, you accidentally get to know a lot about them. Bits of lives slip into conversations- “This character was like my mother”, “When I think of some of the things I did when I was young…”, you get a feel for people’s politics, their values, the things they admire, the things they loathe, the people they are. I guess that’s what all good culture does.
So here we are, back together again. grabbing that precious hour and a half a month to chat about something we care about, that maybe no one else in our lives does. I didn’t realise quite what it had meant to people: for Ninna, who came to the UK from Denmark, coming to the group was one of the first things she did on coming to the city. She referred to coming to back to the group as “like meeting up with family you had not seen in a long time”.
I’m looking forward to welcoming new people, to discussing new stories, to reading new writers. I’m even looking forward to the flack I will inevitably get when I choose an absolutely awful book.
There’s nothing passive about books. We are readers. We are culture too. Watch out for us.
To find out about the group: https://www.facebook.com/faustoltd/