Megan Nicol Reed: Banging on at book club

22:58, Apr 26 2014

The middle-aged and middle class are fond of a club: golf, tennis, swingers.

Safety in numbers and all that, I guess. Of the myriad ways, however, in which they choose to kick back, to spend their precious down-time, to express themselves, there is no greater pursuit than the book club.

On any given week night, from Khandallah to Kingsland, groups of women (men too, but largely women) are gathering around coffee tables, asking the hard questions, fearlessly treading where others won't, banging on and on and on. 

In what ways is guilt a recurring theme in The Book Thief? Could The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society have equally been written in emails as letters? Did The Help's Minny go too far with the s*** pie she made for Miss Hilly?

My own book club is the envy of others. We are 11 in number, each handpicked by our convenor. While other clubs wax and wane, boasting shameful attrition rates, after six years we are still going strong. We meet on the first Thursday of every month, yet we are not rigid. We make allowances for life's ebbs and flows: for school holidays, overseas voyages, significant birthdays. 

We belong to Christchurch Book Discussion Scheme (BDS), a not-for-profit organisation facilitating 1000-plus groups around the country. At the beginning of each year we receive a catalogue of more than 800 titles, from which we draw up a wish list. And each month they courier us a set of books. We marvel at how other book clubs function.


Clubs where no one reads the same book, or they have created their own library which is carted from house to house in suitcase and banana box.

We have heard of clubs who at best can look forward to a cup of tea and a plate of Cameo Creams. Groups of women in three-quarter pants and sensible shoes, clutching brown glass Arcoroc mugs.

We dress up for book club and we knock back the wine. We have preferred months in which we host. Those with an open fire opt for winter. Those with a deck and a view for warmer times of the year. When it's your turn you lay it all on. The more ambitious might create a meal inspired by the book's setting.

I struck it lucky last month with Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, and served up raclette followed by tarte tatin.

One memorable evening an excellent cook put on a Nigerian banquet in honour of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's masterpiece Purple Hibiscus.

We follow a loose schedule. There is much dissension when anyone dares try to lay down any rules (a proposed fine for non-finishers was fast repudiated).

But mostly we arrive between 7.30 and 8pm, and gorge ourselves on the savoury course while catching up on each other's lives. Around 9pm the hostess calls for order, launching discussions with her take on the book.

Half-way round we break for dessert. Sometimes our reviews are as insightful as complaining about the font size; other times we consider questions of cultural relativism.

Occasionally we are brought to tears. Each book comes with a set of very earnest notes, prepared by another member of the BDS, including suggested points for discussion. We steadfastly ignore these and take great pleasure in rounding off our individual reviews with a score out of 10.

There are those among us who are easily pleased, routinely handing out upwards of seven-and-a-half, while one or two are more brutal than the toughest Man Booker judging panel. From them, a five is the highest praise.

Everything is recorded, complete with the most delicate illustrations, in a scrapbook by the artist in our group. It has become tradition that our June meeting always involves an over-night road trip. This year we're heading to Piha.

Eleven middle-aged, middle-class women banging on and on and on. Having the time of our lives.

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