NBC's announcement of a new book club on their Today show is only the latest indication that books still matter. And book clubs -- especially the local informal kind -- are more popular than ever.
How many book clubs are there in Winnipeg? Nobody seems to know for sure, but there must be hundreds. Membership of each is usually around 10 -- just right for being comfortably seated in the average living room, if you add kitchen chairs when there's a full turn-out. Some have names, like The Monday Night Book Club and Book Babes.
Most clubs start up in September and meet once a month. Many will have already picked the selections for the whole year. While many readers like to have their own copies of the books, Winnipeg Public Library makes available 10-book kits especially for book clubs.
Some people think the average book club is simply a chance for women to get together for wine, goodies and gossip. The vast majority of book clubs are exclusively female in my experience.
I went to a club a few years ago as guest author. They had read my novel Weddings and they started off by going around the room, every member giving my book a rating -- just a number, leaving the explanation till later. The first woman said, "Three." I thought, Oh, no! What am I doing here? I soon learned that it was out of five, not 10. And I did get a few fours. And the ensuing discussion was scintillating.
More recently, I was at a club that has a guest facilitator each time. I led the discussion of Richard Ford's novel Canada, a lovely book to talk about. Many of those present agreed that they liked the book much more after our deliberations.
Another club I attended made sure every member had a say, and no one else could speak while the designated person was expressing her views. The book was my novel Dating and one woman chose a lesser character, Mary, as her favourite. I was delighted that poor Mary was rescued from oblivion.
Are there mixed book clubs? I was invited to one years ago. It felt like a college faculty meeting, but that wasn't necessarily bad -- most of them worked for the University of Winnipeg.
You don't hear much about men's book clubs. Some guys would be quick to dismiss the whole notion of reading a book as "a feminine thing," to say nothing of sitting around a living room talking about it.
A few weeks ago, Adrian Chamberlain, a columnist for the Victoria Times-Colonist, wrote about joining a men's book club. He first mentioned how rare such groups are, citing a survey of British book clubs that found that, out of 50,000 clubs, only four per cent were men-only. He wondered how to dress for his first meeting.
"I figured maybe wear a smoking jacket (I own a Hefneresque shiny gold one) and emphasize salient points by stabbing the air with a briar-wood pipe." His wife talked him into wearing a tennis shirt.
I hadn't heard of a men's book club here until recently. (Chamberlain speculated that the first rule of such a club must be you do not talk about it.) Donovan Gray, a local ER doctor and author of Dude, Where's My Stethoscope?, told me about the one he belongs to.
Membership is by invitation only; an invitation goes out only when an opening occurs. The last meeting of the year is held in June at McNally Robinson Booksellers, where each member suggests three books to be considered for the next year. Poker chips are used in the voting. If, in reading a selection, a few members find it horrible, that book could be dropped and replaced. Meetings, held monthly in a member's home, last two hours -- with serious discussion taking up three-quarters of that. Snack food, beer and wine are supplied by the host. Dress is informal.
In Donovan's club, books of any vintage can be selected. Some clubs prefer recently published works.
Which brings up a major question: Where do members get their information on the books they want to read? This may be a weak link in the whole process. Only well-hyped books make it into general news, and so often these are by no means the best books. There are hundreds of engrossing books published every year that never get noticed, even by the most eccentric bibliophile.
To learn about new stuff, readers should start with the Books section in this newspaper. It is as comprehensive as any in Canada, and the reviews are original, where many papers simply pick up wire-service offerings. Then there is the McNally Robinson newsletter, published five times a year, and the Winnipeg Review, online at www.winnipegreview.com.
Coming this Sept. 20-28 is an event that is a first-class source of book information: Thin Air, or the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. Time once and for all to dismiss the notion that this is a wild party intended exclusively for writers. The festival is meant for readers. It is a chance for readers to hear samples of the latest books read by the authors themselves, to meet those authors, and to hear them interviewed. This book bonanza goes on all week, at various times of the day, in several completely accessible venues.
It appears, then, that books are still part of our culture and our lives. Some people are hooked on the electronic versions -- such people are scorned by book critic Joe Queenan as having "purged all the authentic, non-electronic magic and mystery from their lives." But I would suggest that books will persist into the future, and it won't be a case of either paper or electronic; we will have both, and probably other forms no one has yet dreamed of.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose most recent books are Dating: A novel and Changing People's Lives: An Illustrated History of Red River College.