PHILIP MATTHEWS attends a rare thing - a men's book club - to find passionate readers and perhaps the future of serious reading.
I was told to expect a book group. Am I in the right house? Ten guys in their 50s are seated around a coffee table in a lounge in suburban Christchurch. On the table: wine, beer, snacks, the occasional non-alcoholic drink.
The common image of a book group in New Zealand would replace the 10 men with women of roughly the same age. You expect glasses of chardonnay or pinot gris, more gossip about jobs, lives and kids than worthy discussion of the month's title. It's a homogenous middle-aged and middle-class group.
Actually, the cliche is pretty much the reality. Of the 1000 book groups registered with the Book Discussion Scheme, the vast majority are all-female and there are only three all-male groups in the country. This Christchurch group is one of them.
These men sure know how to run a meeting. Gossip is minimal. Talk turns quickly to the book under discussion, which is The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid.
One of the better post-9/11 novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is related as a long monologue by a Pakistani man named Changez. He tells an American in Lahore about his experiences in the United States, studying at Princeton and working in the financial sector in New York before the September 11 attacks changed everything.
The book appeared in 2007 and has been translated into more than 25 languages. Some compared it to The Great Gatsby, particularly in its early passages, when Changez, with his American job and American girlfriend, is eager to belong. But the author also plays a clever trick: it is not just the 9/11 Islamists who act according to fundamentals, as fundamentalism is also in the language of the New York corporation that employs Changez. Hamid is making a point about cultural relativism and perception.
Five years later, in suburban Christchurch, there is still plenty to discuss. As in any group, some of the 10 men talk with greater openness than others. Some are more earnest, but all find something valuable in the book's obvious challenge to American self- righteousness and fundamentalism. One goes further into the symbolic than others, noting how close the name Changez is to "changes" and that his all- American girlfriend was called Erica, as in "Am-Erica".
If the last time you were called upon to talk about a book in public was a nerve-racking university tutorial, you might be surprised by the ease and friendliness of this scene. There are glances at provided fact sheets and questions, but the talk flows without them. Someone cites the movie The Corporation, without naming it, and its argument that corporations have personalities and could be considered psychopathic. Another wonders whether fundamentalism is essentially a lack of empathy.
All are in agreement that the book is "a cracker". Is such agreement typical? No, there have been fierce arguments, they say.
One member of the entirely Pakeha group said that they were all racists during a session on Dick Scott's history of Parihaka, Ask That Mountain. Prejudices were seriously challenged.
Two Irish Catholic members disagreed over the depiction of a Catholic boyhood in a New Zealand novel, whose title now eludes them.
Some unusual discussions followed the reading of Witi Ihimaera's gay-sex novel, Nights in the Garden of Spain.
That was the first meeting. The group had asked Book Discussion Scheme manager Barbara Brown for something that would challenge them. One says that the phrase "burning rubber" has never meant the same thing since.
When The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been exhausted, talk turns to other books read over the past month. One man mentions Greg McGee's Love and Money, which he calls imperfect but interesting. Another praises Charlotte Randall's Hokitika Town. A third has read a new-ish Cormac McCarthy. Heads turn as everyone loved The Road. But The Sunset Limited is not a novel but a play.
At the end of the meeting, copies of The Reluctant Fundamentalist are collected, ready to be sent back to the Book Discussion Scheme's Christchurch headquarters. Next month's book is handed around: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude.
It was a lucid, enlightening hour.
In science, they talk about the observer effect. This means the presence of an observer can alter the outcome of an experiment. Has this happened here?
The next day one of the members, Murray Jones, emails. He is also the Book Discussion Scheme's chairman. "Thanks for coming to our group last night - to be honest, you probably brought a bit of focus to the evening as, depending on the book, the discussion can be a bit desultory before we go on to discussing critical things like politics and EQC."
Then he gets into the meat of it: "As the chairman I'm mostly concerned with the strategic direction these days. Our aim, apart from growth in the BDS's natural catchment of middle-aged Pakeha women, is to extend the love of books, and reading, to groups that aren't normally associated with this. Examples include men, rural groups, prisoners, and ethnic groups. Needless to say, none of this is easy."
Some groups fit the traditional image more easily - the middle-class, middle-aged, Kim Hill listener. Which is not intended as a slight.
In Wellington, Patricia Laurenson and Tara Sewell fit the bill. Laurenson's group is made up of eight mainly professional women. But within that, there is diversity of opinion, and an inability to predict what people will like and dislike.
What comes to mind as highlights? There was Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle - a "politically contentious" book about the virtues of locally grown food. That even got two women in the group making their own cheese. But others hated it.
A Marian Keyes novel reminded them not to judge books by covers. Someone brought along Keyes' Rachel's Holiday. Laurenson remembers it had a pink cover, and perhaps even a picture of a pair of high-heel shoes. But it turned out to be a gritty story about alcoholism and addiction.
Back in Hamilton, Laurenson had been in a book group with less structure. People simply brought books along and talked about them - to get everyone reading the same thing was an achievement. There was a breakthrough when they read Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection, a novel about imperfection, and had meaningful discussions about recognising quality in a book. A recent dud? In the Book Discussion Scheme catalogue, there was something promoted as the best book about pottery. And it turned out to be just a book about pottery. One liked it, the rest didn't.
The group meets monthly. Some, busy with small children, only just manage a book a month. More than anything, the scheme forces them to finish a book. More avid readers get through one a week.
Tara Sewell laughs with recognition at the description of the professional, Radio New Zealand-listening woman. She is a lawyer in her 30s. Her group of 12 women began as friends and friends of friends. One shifted to New Plymouth and started her own group.
They meet monthly and make an event of it. The catch-up matters as much as the discussion. The best recent book seems to have been The Glass Castle, a memoir by American writer Jeanette Walls about a troubled upbringing. The worst? There was one that everyone hated this year and some couldn't finish, but, no, she can't recall its title.
They often have heated debates, but it never gets personal. They like to mix classics, fiction and non-fiction. She apologises for the nerdiness, but they have recently launched their own ratings system. So far, in 2012, books have averaged between 5/10 and 8/10.
Sewell says it has opened her eyes - that she is reading things she would not otherwise read.
As Murray Jones points out, that catchment of Pakeha women is the easy part. We meet for coffee to discuss the challenges involved in pushing it further.
He has been chairman of the Book Discussion Scheme for about four years. "My wife was a member of a book group and the then-committee that ran the scheme advertised for members. My wife said, 'You like books and you like business, so you'd better go along.' So I did."
He joined a group that was a mix of men and women. It was "dysfunctional" and he left after six months.
He got in touch with the Workers Educational Association, which ran the scheme, and expressed his doubts. A little while later, the old committee was disbanded and Jones was asked to put together a new one.
Why was it dysfunctional? Jones goes back into history. The scheme started in 1973 and was run from a garage at the back of the Canterbury WEA on Gloucester St. Four groups were set up in different towns, and it was modelled on an Australian adult education scheme.
Over time, it grew. When Jones became involved, a limit of 620 groups had been imposed and there was a substantial waiting list. There was also a somewhat alarming book cull.
"They had this process by which, when they got too many books, they culled the bottom end and threw them out," Jones says. "Anything that wasn't selected five times a year went on a cull list. First thing I did was to stop that. Good books.
"The interesting one was An Illustrated History of the Treaty of Waitangi [by Claudia Orange], which they had never had a request for. They were desperate to get rid of it and I said, it's not going. And it's stayed. It goes out sporadically, because we highlight it. The scheme has quite a lot of power to promote books it likes."
Which brings up a dilemma: should the scheme push what is popular or the less read books?
Some books get their own momentum: The Book Thief, The Kite Runner, The Poisonwood Bible, the sort of titles Oprah Winfrey highlighted. But some books are unknown simply because they are unknown.
"I remember introducing a book called The Industry of Souls, about an Englishman who spent 30 years in a gulag in Russia and was released and stayed in the village. It's the most lovely, thoughtful, gentle book with quite a lot of depth. That ranks right up there. And it was completely unknown when it went in."
There are nearly 500 fiction and more than 220 non-fiction titles in the scheme now. The scheme buys in bulk, between 50 and 300. "We have an uneasy relationship with the publishers because they think they sell fewer books if their books have been selected. On the other hand, we give them great publicity."
Jones is always on the lookout for recommendations, and I suggest Dark Night, Martin Edmond's speculative non- fiction book about Colin McCahon. He jots down the title on his folded-up newspaper.
Back to the scheme: it is self-funded by fees of $60 per person per year. Groups pay freight on books one way.
One thousand groups, with about 10 people per group, sounds like a lot of signed-up readers but there are challenges ahead. First, what are they to do about e-readers and e-books? This is the future they must prepare for, although "personally, I would rather the day never came", Jones says.
Second, those hard-to-reach sectors: "Younger people, men, and lower socio- economic groups, ethnic groups."
A 2009 survey found that 96 per cent of the scheme's members were female, only 0.5 per cent of members were under 30, 76 per cent were over 50 and 97 per cent were Pakeha.
They have had little luck with Maori and Pasifika communities. As for younger people, they read books but already have social things going.
"I think almost half of what we do is provide the means for social interaction among adults," he says. "But the younger groups we have are very enthusiastic."
Groups of prisoners? "That's been very hard to get off the ground because there are a lot of books in prisons and by nature a shifting population. And we need someone to act as the co-ordinator. I don't believe we've had any groups that have continued."
And men? Men are the big problem. "My wife's group has one bloke. She says he stands his ground and contributes. But he could probably do with a bit of company.
"In our group, two of the blokes would rather read photography manuals. They have to be grabbed by the book within the first 20 pages or they don't continue. I don't think men read as much and I don't think they gather together as much."
He thinks all-male groups work well: "They can be a bit more rough and ready."
As long as everyone remembers to play the ball and not the man? Jones smiles. "Well, that doesn't always happen."?
- © Fairfax NZ News
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