I’m David – I facilitate the Mitchell Library Book Group and I’m going to tell you about collaboration between book groups.
At the Mitchell Book Group we have been involved with a number of collaborations, the biggest of which was the international research done alongside the Universities of Stirling and Newcastle which is still ongoing. We’ve also been linked with Melbourne Australia where book groups are run as part of Community Education and are a major part of any community network. In Glasgow we’ve worked with the Goethe Institute to look at whether reading the same text in different languages effects your interpretation of the novel.
Collaboration can bring many benefits; they open the group to different writing, they often enforce questions and discussion topics that we as a group would perhaps not address, and they similarly open up some potential challenges.
All book groups need rules to function, even the most anarchic and dishevelled ones have the rule that they will happily survive in said chaos. In established book groups these rules will become imbedded in the members and any deviation will grate on the evening’s discussion. When joining with another group, either physically or on the stratosphere, they will have a different set of codes and conducts or more usually the same ones but which just manifest themselves in different ways.
Very basic rules such as starting and finishing at the agreed time, who speaks first, how long you speak for, not interrupting when others speak etc are all areas where understanding can be stretched between different groups.
The biggest thing that needs to be taken into account though when collaborating with other book groups is how that group, and indeed your own group, actually deal with alternative attitudes of how to enjoying literature and why different texts are enjoyed. Going back to the work with Stirling University; they gave the same novels to book groups in Canada, Kenya, India, Scotland and Trinidad and Tobago.
Each recorded group discussions showed up many interesting issues: none more so than the rubbish we actually talk during book group, on reading the transcripts of our own group I’ve get to fathom what a two page discussion on the merits of jammy dodgers has to do with Jackie Kay’s Adoption Papers.
One of the books we were asked to consider was Small Island by Andrea Levy. Although more or less enjoyed in some way by the majority of groups it was lesser enjoyed from the start by the groups in the Caribbean there is an underlying historical belief that those people who came to Britain during the Windrush period were actually deserting their country. Similarly Brick Lane by Monica Ali raised different questions of cultural racism within all the groups but arrived at that discussion from a very different angle within the Indian groups mainly due to the novel being about the Bangladeshi community.
So a book which in Australia is hailed as a beacon of liberation and female emancipation can in another setting be interpreted as an unattractive shallow wallow in self pity.
And a novel full of brave people dealing with atrocious and life threatening daily life can when presented to the world be interpreted as nothing more than a boys own adventure.
I’m not talking about disagreement in discussion. What I’m saying is that each group, even if it attempts not to, will form a collective policy of how writing of any kind is viewed. They will decide on how important to their day reading is, and they will explore what fundamentally they use books for.
So why do it, why if you’re group is toddling along fine, why explore the opportunity of collaborating with another group.
The purpose of a book group is to enjoy reading and in the end it is reading the books that are important not the discussion. The most basic rule of any book group is that you have to read the book. The fact that your opinion or the opinion of your group or the opinion of the people representing your county at an international event is different from everyone else’s is of no matter.
At the dinner following the International conference at Stirling University, I sat beside a woman who had originally lived in Beirut then through circumstances beyond her control had to move to Cyprus then Italy then Spain then the Canary Islands. Her life had been filled with escaping from bullets as a child and a nomadic existence throughout Europe trying to find a place of safety. We had little in common, she was very much a serious academic and no doubt found my chatter somewhat inane to say the least, but when I was emptying my bag in search of my camera she snatched up the copy of De Niro’s Game by Ragi Hage that I’d been reading. She had read it also, and suddenly we were part of the same gang.
That’s what book group collaboration does; it gives you the opportunity to play with a lot of different people.