Revolutionary Reading: The World of Book Clubs

Can a book club be a radical space? To celebrate World Book Day we talk to a number of book clubs around Glasgow and Edinburgh to discuss the importance of coming together to discuss stories in all their forms

Feature by Katie Goh | 01 Mar 2018

What do you think of when you think of reading – a person sitting alone, silently turning the pages of a well-thumbed novel? Or perhaps it’s of more than one person but they’re still silent, sitting in a library or in a café? We tend to view reading as a quiet passion, something done in silent contemplation. But what happens when we come together with a single purpose of reading? Although book clubs haven’t always had the most fashionable reputation, these last few years have seen a real resurgence across cities, making them an increasingly important staple of the literary landscape. We sit in at some of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s brilliant book clubs to ask: why do people still come together to talk about reading and can a book club be a radical space?

Focus on women writers

The Glasgow Women’s Library’s (GWL) book club is one of the longest running groups in the city. Like the library, the club reads exclusively women writers and its members are women and non-binary people. “We just read books by women and I guess that’s political in itself, the decision to do that,” says Heather Middleton, who took over the group twelve years ago. “A book on a shelf is meaningless – reading and sharing is how books live on. It’s lovely doing that for female authors who otherwise might just be left on obscure university reading lists.” The book group mirrors the library in that they’re archiving and preserving books by women, however they’re also opening up these stories and, as Heather notes, “bringing them into the community again.”

In academia, the Transatlantic Literary Women’s (TLW) book club is doing something similar. Founded in Glasgow, the group consists of academics and students who focus on works by transatlantic women writers. “TLW was created with the approaching centenary of women’s access to partial suffrage in mind,” says the group, “but also at a time when the role and representation of women in politics was a very topical issue, as the American election campaign was in full swing. Our first event took place shortly after Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House, and just before the Women’s March.”

Similar to GWL’s group, the club have chosen to focus exclusively on women writers, especially those forgotten by the mainstream academic canon. “The forgotten women we look at were not forgotten for their lack of talent, but because they wrote in times when their status as women was a real obstacle to secure the support, recognition, and financial security needed to become established writers with a stable source of income and access to publication.” The TLW have two clubs running in parallel, one physical and one online #TLWBookChat, which takes place on Twitter. Utilising social media has been a way of expanding the group to include academics worldwide as well as the general public. The group are conscious that academia can be an ivory tower of knowledge, seemingly impossible to break into, but “having the discussion online also means that it’s accessible to anyone, at any time, provided that they have internet connection.”

Online book groups

Online book clubs are becoming increasingly popular. Our Shared Shelf, the book club started by Emma Watson, has 213,120 followers on Goodreads and 268K followers on Instagram. It’s unlikely that every single one of these followers reads and actively participates in the group’s discussion, but even just being a silent listener is still participating. As the TLW say, online clubs are more accessible and break down geographical and financial limitations. They make the reading and sharing of knowledge more democratic. Both GWL’s group and TLW are conscious that buying books is expensive, and not everyone has the income to buy a new book every month. The GWL get their books through Glasgow Live Libraries who have sets of 15 or 20 books that they distribute within their club. TLW have received academic funding and aim to buy books for attendees; if they can’t, they try to select texts from the public domain.

As well as financial costs, there are also time costs to book clubs: not everyone has the spare hours, or literacy ability, to read a 500-page novel. GWL has a second group called the Story Café which aims to counter this issue. The group comes together in the library weekly at lunch time, and Wendy Kirk reads aloud a short story, novel extract, or poem, which the group then discuss over tea and cake. Like the other GWL book club, Story Café exclusively reads texts by women, and Wendy says that the stories are used as a jumping off point for people to discuss their own experiences, “in quite a safe way. We tackle subjects that some people might consider to be more taboo. We had a really great session called Menstruation Myths and Period Dramas about how periods are talked about in fiction and poetry. One woman at the end said that she’d never talked about when she got her period and she was in her 60s.” Wendy says that the Story Café not only gives voice to women writers –  literally, by reading them aloud – but also gives voice to the women in attendance. “It’s an empowering space because there is a sense that you feel like your voice is being heard and that your opinions matter.”

A sense of community is created through the sharing of experiences and Wendy says that people extend the story group beyond the GWL’s walls by sharing hand-outs of the extracts they read. “We were doing poetry one week, and a woman passed the poem on to her friend who then passed it on to another friend. Another woman keeps all the hand-outs and shares them with her grandmother so there’s nice sharing going on.” The nature of reading aloud stories means that the group is also accessible for people who don’t speak English as a first language. “We have had women coming who live in Glasgow or are new to Glasgow who have English as their second language,” says Wendy, “and they come along to the group and say it really helped with their English, especially their conversational English, to just sit and listen to someone reading.”

Short story focus

Golden Hare bookshop in Edinburgh is aiming to do something similar with the launch of their new book group which focuses exclusively on short stories. At the beginning of the meet-up, a short story is read aloud and the group then discuss what they’ve heard. “What's great about the short story club is there's no need to read anything beforehand,” says Julie Danskin, the bookshop’s manager. “Short stories are great for busy lifestyles, and we also want to encourage people to spend a bit of time for themselves to come and sit with fellow readers in a bookshop, sip a glass of wine or tea and listen to the words, then join a discussion if they feel like it.” Independent bookshops tend generally to be spaces focused on community values, and, as Julie says, “Literary events can often be expensive and formal affairs in theatres or lecture halls, but people feel more at home in a bookshop.” The short story club is free and has an explicit focus on building a comfortable, accessible space where people can share thoughts and ideas about literature.

LGBTQ+ book group

Lighthouse, Edinburgh’s radical bookshop, has several book clubs with similar goals. The most recent is called Other Fruit, a group that reads exclusively fiction by LGBTQ+ people. Mairi, the bookshop’s manager, came up with the idea of an LGBTQ+ book club in December and the group has their first meeting in February. Mairi says the purpose of the club is to “find your people” and bring the LGBTQ+ community together over literature. Lighthouse is an explicitly political bookshop, with focuses including queer, feminist, and political writing. Mairi says that although the group falls under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, everyone brings their own individual experience to the club: “It’s about empathy for different experiences and carving out a safe space.”

Women of colour reading group

Another book club that meets at Lighthouse, although it’s not affiliated with the shop, is the Women of Colour (WoC) reading group. Started by University of Edinburgh politics student Mayowa Omogbenigun, the WoC group was set up as an alternative solution to the overwhelming white literary canon still studied at universities. “People of colour generally tend not to have read books by people of colour because you get into a cycle of reading white writers all the time,” says Mayowa. “So when I was 18, I made a conscious effort to read diversely. That forced me to really look for books and read people I wouldn’t have found without challenging myself.”

The group is primarily made up of university students, many of whom are international. Mayowa says, “For most people it’s not actually that much about reading but more about having people of colour and people like you around you. We get a lot of people in second or third year, or doing their Master’s, and Edinburgh is quite a culture shock compared to where they were before.” From Nigeria, when Mayowa arrived in Edinburgh, she also felt that culture shock. She created the WoC club as a way of creating a community centred on a collective activity – reading. For some people, the club is the first time they’ve even been in a room with people who look like them: “Because of how white Edinburgh is, loads of women of colour don’t have women of colour friends,” notes Mayowa. “It was just so weird to me to have people say that this is the first time they’ve been in a space that is just women of colour, or it’s the first time I’ve been able to talk about feminism and not been the only women of colour in the room.”

Mayowa says that when the group meets, it feels like a radical act: “White people can go literally anywhere but this is our space. I think because of how few and far between people of colour are in Edinburgh, when we consciously group together and do things, it does feel radical.” Being represented in the culture you are engaging with – whether that’s the WoC club, LGBTQ+ club, or GWL club – can be feel radical and it can be political even just to gather together in a space that is exclusively your own.

Mayowa is aware that the argument could be suggested that these spaces become closed off and turn into echo chambers, however that doesn’t take into consideration that everyone brings their own individual experiences, interpretations, and opinions to the group. Similarly, Heather at GWL says that her group is radical because it focuses on a type of experience that is often not represented in the mainstream canon. “We focus on female experience, especially female experience we might be unfamiliar with, and it’s about understanding and learning from one another.”

Each of the groups I spoke to had a similar ethos: to be open, inclusive, and understanding. It is their shared focus on creating a community that makes these book clubs radical spaces as each group seeks to validate marginalised voices of writers within the larger literary canon as well as their own marginalised voices within society. As Heather sums up: “The book club is political just in terms of representation. Fiction is about representing the world, therefore even making up the book list is an act of representation – what experiences you are going to represent. It’s a political act.”