Two months ago I hosted a book club event at a local bookshop. It was an open book club, that is, anyone could come along provided they were willing to participate in English.
The book in question was called The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (not my choice). Ever-diligent, I read the book twice. I then prepared notes, activities and discussion points on it.
I wanted to begin with a brief bio of the writer and a brief synopsis of the book. After that, I thought I’d explain what I liked about the book (the accessibility of the prose, the way it flowed, its Britishness, the references to writers and artists, and the logical structure of the work).
Then I planned to entrance the group with my list of dislikes. These were to include the writer’s constant moaning, his ability to feel miserable in any setting , his tendency to state the obvious in a supercilious tone and the white, privileged European male-centredness of the whole enterprise.
The next step was to invite the group to take me on. To let them tell me why I was wrong about the book and to get into a good-humoured (hopefully) debate about the merits and defects of the book…creating a minor stir in our corner of the bookshop. Perhaps casual browsers would look our way and envy the fun we were having. Or not. They could just eye us suspiciously, too. That would have been fine.
Aah, but none of the 8 book club participants had read the book. You see, in Italy, and possibly elsewhere, a ‘book club’ is not necessarily a ‘reading group’, especially when the book concerned is in a foreign language.
Perhaps the participants showed greater judgement than me. The Art of Travel is a mediocre read. They’d saved themselves some disappointment. I hope they’d been reading something more captivating, instead.
Actually, most of the people had come along to practise their English and the book was irrelevant. The event was free and the intent was to promote one of the language schools I work at.
It was easy enough to focus on the broad theme of the book: travel, as well as the destinations featured in it (Madrid, Provence, London and Amsterdam). Bookshop types and people who go along to free, informal book clubs tend to have travelled. Well, actually, everyone tends to have travelled these days; even my father-in-law and he has no interest in books whatsoever.
Non-reading travellers aside, another aim of the club was, of course, to promote the book, to encourage sales. I failed on that score, too. No one hastened to buy a copy. In fact, I think the group decided that it was something they’d rather not read. But, hey, we were in a bookshop and so there were plenty of other book-buying options.
It could be argued that I was providing a useful service. Deciding what not to read, helps us to narrow down our options, bringing us closer to deciding on what our next literary adventure will be.
It’s possible too, that the book club members were way ahead of me and had checked out the book on-line, read a few reviews and concluded that it wasn’t the right book for them.
And so, just in case you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to engage in an hour’s chat about a book that no one has read, with a group of people you barely know, then let me assure you that the answer is “yes”. I’d even go so far as to recommend it – the experience, that is, not the book!