Don's Diary

March 2, 2001

June 1999
Notice rise in the number of conversations about reading groups and references to them in newspapers. To find out more, I advertise and send out questionnaires. Start to grasp importance of "word of mouth", the engine of the reading group movement.

February 2000
Completed questionnaires flood in. Each reading group comes to life as members describe who they are and what they read. Beryl Bainbridge's Every Man for Himself heading for most unpopular book: "We couldn't wait for the Titanic to sink."

August
Visit the secretary of the Bristol Friendly Reading Society, founded 1799. Records reveal robust attitudes to censorship: "1893. Dr Waterman brought back to the meeting Oscar Wilde's Salome with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. After warmly denouncing both poem and illustrations as obscene he cast the book on the floor and set his foot on it. Though others deprecated the severe treatment of the book it was withdrawn from circulation."

Hear from groups in Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories. Much tempted to visit. Check air fares. Resist.

September
Trip with my Little Dorrit group to her church, St George the Martyr, in Southwark. One wall of the Marshalsea Prison is still there. Find Little Dorrit Court.

Sit in on a session on Lady Chatterley's Lover with a group of young lawyers. Verdict on treatment of sex ranges from "sweet" to "toe-curling".

November
Visit Radio 4's BookClub to see how the media do it. Not the author worship I was expecting. Sit in on its next session at HMP Coldingley, discussing Man and Boy with author Tony Parsons. The men - some in their early 20s, some grandfathers - talk openly about missing their children and how they find the book upsetting.

December
Emails from a Henry James group in Australia and an international group in Abu Dhabi who find Emma "a bit nearer to life in Syria than in modern England".

Have now heard from 350 groups in the United Kingdom and a good global selection. Lists of top choices put, yes, Captain Corelli's Mandolin way ahead.

But the big surprise is the variety: three-quarters of the books are read by only one group in the survey. The range is tremendous, from Aeschylus and the Book of Job to Trainspotting and Where the Wild Things Are . Good to have such a positive story about reading and a sense of this lively alternative network.

February 2001
Hear about a Paradise Lost reading group, too late to include, the proofs have gone. And an eight-year-old describes his "secret swapshop" book exchange, sweeties included. Well, most reading groups I've met go better on a glass or two of wine.


Jenny Hartley teaches English literature at the University of Surrey. Her book, Reading Groups , was published yesterday by Oxford University Press, priced £5.99.

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