DAVID A ALLAN, Book Group Co-ordinator, Mitchell Library, Glasgow (firstname.lastname@example.org)
My name is David and I am the facilitator of the Mitchell Library Literary Fiction Book Group in Glasgow here in Scotland. Just to make a couple of things clear, I’m not a librarian or an academic. I’m a member of Joe-public or a ‘real reader’ apparently. This means I can say what I like.
I’ve been asked to tell you about one groups experiences of being recorded for the project, how they felt about reading the particular four books and the groups thoughts and opinions on each of the pieces of work. Therefore what I am about to tell you are the views of the group overall. I am going to take this back to basics and tell you in the groups own words what they thought of each book.
Like many book or reading groups at least here in the United Kingdom, membership of the Mitchell Library Literary Fiction Group is predominantly female. Everyone in the group describes themselves as white and British and the age range is from twenty six to eighty. Amongst the current members we have an office worker, a psychotherapist, a bookkeeper, a shop worker, a retired nurse, a writer, a union official and Scotland’s if not Europe’s oldest ballerina.
The actual process of being recorded didn’t cause the group any problems if anything it made us a tighter more focussed group and we didn’t get so easily distracted onto unconnected subjects as much as we usually do. At least that is what I thought until I read the transcripts of the meetings. I’ve yet to fathom what a two page conversation on the merits of Jammie Dodger biscuits has to do with Andrea Levi’s Small Island.
Regarding the four books they were asked to read and discuss, I shall start at the top and work down the particular scale of glorification.
Therefore it is very easy to begin with what they found to be the best piece of the four, Jackie Kay's spectacular Adoption Papers.
The group universally loved this work and related greatly to the triptych of voices and to the themes they each expressed. The issue of adoption was greatly discussed and how not everyone’s experience was as happy and fruitful as Jackie’s appears to have been. Everyone in the group knew of someone who had experienced the process of adoption in some way and reading this work opened up a discussion of how something that is not usually talked about openly is in fact part of most of ours lives. The group did talk about whether they were more drawn to Jackie’s work due to her connection to Glasgow, whether they felt more at home with an author we saw as one of our own. However I’m sure as Jackie can testify Glasgow people don’t shy away from telling you if they don’t like anything.
Next on our list was Small Island by Andrea Levi.
This was a very interesting read and indeed like the parallel stories in the novel, a book which brought about a schism of reactions from most of the group. This was seen as a game of two halves and Queenie's and Hortense's stories were viewed as separate identities by the group.
It was Queenie's story which the group related most to and to the social history which surrounded her. Obviously this was the history more known to us and we could see ourselves living through her situation, and it felt both real and full of power. The issue of things needing to feel ‘real’ came up many times in discussions. Hortense and Gilbert’s story the group struggled with mainly due to the fact that they found them rather unsympathetic characters. Where as we walked alongside Queenie and fought each of her personal battles with her, we became frustrated with Hortense and Gilbert’s apparent failure to see what this new life they had stepped into really was like. Then of course they immediately felt bad at criticising people who had just experienced this great trauma of displacement in a foreign land and wondered how we ourselves would cope.
We move further down our lists and things unfortunately begin to take a negative turn.
We move now to Brick Lane by Monica Ali.
Although well written and it was felt that the characterisation was good, the overriding feeling from the group was one of dreariness, and uninteresting dreariness at that. It was felt that this book casts no new light on the subject and the comment was made that it would be good to occasionally read a book where the main protagonists are British Muslim women who are actually happy. The group did discuss whether the tedium in the book was a clever piece of writing in order for us the reader to relate further with the tedium of the characters lives. However taken alongside the use of letters to inform and move the plot along, a device greatly disliked by our group as it is seen as cheating, it was overall decided that this book was a poor read.
Now I need to talk to you about the book the group struggled with most.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith was universally loathed by the group, they insisted I used the word ‘loathed’, indeed it is possibly the most loathed book the group has ever read. It was found to be a simplistic and obvious plot line bound up in an over elaborate and long winded narrative. Here it was felt we weren’t reading a novel, but a self-centred display of Ms Smith’s prowess of how clever she was at constructing sentences. Sentences which, unfortunately, could do nothing to rid themselves of their smugness. The discussion of this novel took an interesting turn because as soon it was established that there was a consensus of great negativity towards it, this quickly turned into an evidence gathering session in the groups attempt to justify its opinion. This involved some comparison of the difference between what they saw as Zadie Smith’s professional image and the critical accolades heaped on White Teeth, compared to both the book’s and author’s image as held by the group. And comments such as, she only got published because she is part of the London literary scene, came to the fore. When I pointed out that the critics have raved about this book; someone piped up ‘yes, in their madness’. It was obvious the group felt it had to look for additional reasons to dismiss this book rather than just say they didn’t like it. Something they have never been shy in saying before. However loathing for the book was compounded when I read a quote from Ms Smith which I shall share with you now.
In the Guardian she wrote, ‘to respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader. The type of reader who is opening up to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. What I am saying is, a reader must have talent, quite a lot of talent’.
This was interpreted by the group as them being not imaginative enough or talented enough to enjoy Ms Smith’s work.
Glasgow as a large port city has a long history of immigration and migration. Despite its hard-man reputation it is a very accepting city and the people’s interests lie in how you live your life now and not necessarily how you lived it in the past.
I will leave you with one final piece of information. When I suggested last month; more than a year after we read the four texts and the recordings took place, that we read the excellent The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon I was met with howls of protest and cries of, ‘we’re fed up of doing those types of books, we want something different.’
Make of that what you will.
So there you have it. That is but one Glasgow Book Group’s views on the four pieces of work.
Thank you for your time.
Paper delivered at the AHRC-funded ‘Reading After Empire’ conference, Stirling University, September 2008
Mary Greenshields, Principal Librarian, Glasgow Libraries
As the Reader Development Coordinator for Glasgow City Libraries, my job includes coordinating the book groups meeting in our libraries. The first one started over 10 years ago–in Whiteinch Library in November 1997. It came about after a collegue went on a work exchange to Canada and found out about book groups there. After advertising through posters in libraries and local book shops and via word of mouth, the group was launched by a local author and, ten years later, is still going strong. Some of the founder members still attend, many people have come and gone over the years, and there are one or two on a waiting list.
The model that was adopted is still in place– led by two librarians, who read the books and lead the discussion. The group reads two books per month, supplied by the library service, and there is no charge. Everyone can suggest books but we find that most members prefer the librarians to surprise them each month –there is a genuine sense of anticipation at the end of the meeting as the next books are revealed. The emphasis is on reading as a leisure pursuit and meetings are informal. Everyone just chips in and the facilitator makes sure everyone who wants has a chance to speak, while no-one is obliged to speak, some prefer to listen. The group meeting in Library at GoMA (Gallery of Modern Art) occasionally has an American visitor –whenever she is over staying with family in Glasgow –who reported that her LA group is more formal, they prepare something and all speak in turn.
Ten years on there are over thirty groups meeting in Glasgow libraries, roughly following the same model. Most meet in the evenings, with some in the afternoon, one at lunchtime and one in the morning.
Most groups read contemporary fiction including books nominated for literary prizes, while some specialise, including:
Cardonald crime fiction group
Drumchapel started off reading family sagas, but before long tackled Life of Pi –the group has really broadened their reading
Hillhead Scottish literature group
The Mitchell has groups reading classics and poetry
Partick Library has a VIP group for visually impaired people reading texts as spoken word. It is facilitated by a sighted person and the group dynamics are quite different because they can’t read each other’s body language so we have developed a set of guidelines –for example they raise their hand when they want to speak.
The members come from all walks of life and the one thing they share is a love of reading. Originally nearly all members were women but this is changing.
The model of the librarian –led group has been very succesful but we have reached saturation point –some colleagues are running two or three and can’t read any more books! We now rely on members of some groups to faciliate them while we supply books, a place to meet and a cup of tea. David Allan takes this role for the Mitchell group.
As a development from groups meeting in libraries, we lend sets of books to a whole network of groups meeting in workplaces and people’s own homes. We offer advice on starting up and running a group and guidelines and generic questions to keep discussion going. We call this service Books to Go for Book Groups.
Groups come together for events
This started with a very successful shadowing of the Orange Prize in 2004 - six groups read one of the shortlisted books and championed it at a party at Govanhill Library on the night the winner was announced. It was the year Small Island won –and it was our choice on the night too.
This has developed into an annual Battle of the Books at the West End Festival –several groups champion their favourite book and everyone votes.
Over the years, groups have taken part in a range of projects and initiatives
In summer 2004, we were approached by Radio Scotland who were looking for a book group to take part in their book programme Cover Stories. The Hillhead Library afternoon group appeared with presenter Richard Holloway and author AL Kennedy, discussing her book So I Am Glad.
Later that year, the lunchtime group at Library at GoMA topped that with an appearance on TV. They took part on BBC4’s The Book Show, discussing Brick Lane. We were invited after the show’s researchers saw our reading group diary on the Orange Prize website.
Other moments in the spotlight include Whiteinch being Group of the Month on the Penguin Readers’ Group website and there’s a lovely picture of the Mitchell Group (led by David) on the Homecoming 2009 site.
From September 2006 to January 2007, we embarked on an exciting partnership with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra which involved some of our book groups reading books on a musical theme and being visited by musicians to play, talk about their work and improvise music around the books. Trumpet by Jackie Kay was one of the books.
Through a project called Reading Partners, which links publishers with libraries, we quite often get advance copies of books, sometimes linked to a visit by the author on publication. For example recently Canongate gave us 40 proof copies of Anne Donovan’s book Being Emily and a lot of group members came along to hear Anne read at the Mitchell. It’s a good event for the author too, to meet readers who have read the book and can ask informed questions.
In 2005, Faber contacted us about a debut novel The Observations by Jane Harris, which was going to be their lead debut fiction title the following spring. Since the story is set in Scotland, Faber were keen that Scottish book groups would read the book before publication and meet up for an event with the author. They supplied us with proof copies in November 2005 which we passed around several groups. By the time the book came out, in April 2006, it had received extensive coverage and been very well reviewed across the media, with the result that when members came along to meet the author, they felt themselves to be in the vanguard of what had become something of a publishing sensation.
As you can see, we’ll try anything once so when James Proctor phoned and asked us to be part of the Devolving Diasporas project, we were happy to take part.
Paper delivered at the AHRC-funded ‘Reading After Empire’ conference, Stirling University, September 2008