A view from the counter: Bookclub mania

The weather continues to tease and tantalise – brief hints at sunshine, warmth through glass, a few spring bulbs. Sadly this is too often quickly followed by a Siberian blast and a need to huddle by the heater, nose in book, in wilful denial of the heating bill which will blight all chance of a summer holiday. However, at least now it is lighter and there is a chance of getting out. Cycling home along the river path is still a distant dream. Are you mad ? In that darkening gloom? It may be Richmond, but if you are not assaulted by the mad, bad and dangerous to know then there is fear of running into a jogger or over a duck. However, one can at least go out without the need to wear 12 layers of passion-killer thermals and that fetching scarf knitted by Gran, one finger constantly twitching over the mobile in case of travel updates from TFL which will blight forever the chance of reaching Clapham.

A mobile library van, Accra

A bookclub meets in warmer climes - a mobile library van, Accra (catalogue ref: CO 1069/43/73)

A favourite destination is, of course, a book club meeting. OK, I’ll admit The Favourite Destination is a pub but then my book club meets in the pub so it’s a win-win. We are all booksellers and avid readers but frankly sometimes the only thing that will get us to the last page is the fact that if you haven’t finished the book you can’t have chips. Ami is rigorous on this. It had to be instituted after The Complete Poe. There are only so many short stories about pale wan young men with an unhealthy interest in their dead cousins you can take. There was a suggestion that we save the wine till after everyone had made some useful contribution but we all knew that was never going to work. We may be hopeless romantics holding out for that happy ending, still waiting to be clasped to the bosom of a tall dark stranger who owns half of Sussex (I blame too much early exposure to Georgette Heyer) but we also read Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem and understand that you are better off living alone with cats, and a woman needs a glass of pinot noir to make it to bedtime.

According to figures released by the Office of National Statistics, a quarter of Britons have not read a book in the last six months. Who are these people? On second thoughts don’t tell me, I don’t need to know them. Many respondents cited a lack of time – rubbish. You always have time, it’s what you chose to do with it. I don’t have time to go to the gym but I can always find time for a book (it means I’m good to talk to but you best keep your eyes closed). Books are perfect for multi-tasking too: read on the train or in the bath, prop a book on the handbars of the exercise bike or beside the phone (make that time on hold work for you). Some cited cost, although in real terms books are cheap and there are countless offers (make reading instead of eating your ‘new year new you’ diet). If you have an e-reader you can download a lot for free or take advantage of those bookshop-threatening 20p specials (20p for a work that took someone three years of their life to write …). If you can find one, borrow a book from your local public library (do that quickly – libraries may not be with us long) or from a friend (if your friends have no books find better friends).

Interestingly, it is not (mostly) because people can’t read. Literacy rates are rising and the number of adults with reading difficulties has decreased by two million in the past decade. There are however those who simply don’t like to read. Victoria Beckham claims to have never read a book in her life; I believe Princess Diana read few. To be honest I have more respect for these people (well ok not for Posh or Princess Di, but in principle). If you don’t like it, don’t do it and have the courage to say so. Just don’t be like those annoying people who claim they ‘can’t’ eat mushrooms when what they really mean is they don’t like them.

A separate survey by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council found that 40 per cent had lied about having read certain books ‘just so they could join in with the conversation’. Now that is more intriguing – what are these ‘certain books’ of which you speak ? What is the literati’s equivalent of reality television? Are you chatting about Fifty Shades of Grey by the water cooler or is it Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies ? Does it depend who is listening? Do you quote Hawking’s Brief History of Time to raise your intellectual cred (a safe bet to blag on this as no one has ever finished it)? What if you make a massive faux pas? Why do you not think you will be found out?

Now if you want to chat about books then you need a book club and there are a lot out there to choose from. There are book clubs on cookery books where you can eat your way through the pages; books clubs for gardeners to swap ‘clippings’ and ‘clippings’; book clubs to catch up on all those classics you should have read at school but didn’t because our education system has gone to pot; books clubs on modern fiction so you can run ahead of the Booker list. And if you are interested in history titles we can now help.

The National Archives is setting up our own online bookclub to run in tandem with The Writer of the Month Programme. Check it out on our Community. We are going to look at one fact and one fiction title from the same period in history and will kick off with Antony Beevor’s Berlin and Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. Beevor uses archival material and careful research to recount in harrowing detail the suffering of a city caught between the death throes of Hitler’s Reich and the onslaught of the rampaging Red Army. It has been compared to reading Solzhenitsyn but with footnotes, and truly conveys the horror of war. Fallada’s novel evokes the claustrophobic atmosphere of life in Second World War Berlin as individuals struggling to survive in a world of petty mistrusts and personal betrayals.

If you’ve read either (or both) post your thoughts. Or if you feel you need a human, or a bibulous, element to your bookclub, set up your own local history bookclub using our Writer of the Month books to prevent in-fighting on the book choices (it happens). Use our posts as a starting point and post your own group’s thoughts after the meeting. Happy reading.

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