When is a book group not a book group? When it’s a month in the city: Dublin’s ‘One City, One Book’ project
Book clubs are often featured in the culture pages of the press where their merits (or demerits) tend to be hotly debated by critics. People are either for or against book groups; there is very little middle ground to be found on the book group question. Many critics and journalists have waded into the argument with a variety of views that are often at variance with those of book group devotees. I am thinking specifically of some articles in the Irish newspapers last autumn where tempers became rather fraught. Mary O’Donnell (The Irish Times, 12 Sep ‘We need to talk about…the horror of book clubs‘) viewing them primarily from her position as a writer was highly critical of the agenda of book groups. Eleanor Fitzsimons (The Irish Times, 6 Oct ‘The book club bites back‘) was defending book clubs in general and her own in particular from O’Donnell’s hostile criticisms. Various letter writers also leapt into the fray. After this undignified spat The Independent’s Eilis O’Hanlon wrote a more balanced article on the subject (‘Book clubs storm gates of literature‘, 25 Oct) in which she expressed reservations about the effect of book clubs on publishing. This is what she refers to as ‘the commodification of the book club’ which she also claims ‘both empowers the reader and limits our imagination’. After all the ballyhoo I was interested to see that The Irish Times has recently set up its own book group. (see www.irishtimes.com)
But after all that, what exactly defines a book group? Can anyone join in? And how big can it be? What do you read? The short answer is that there is no definitive answer. Book groups now come in all shapes and sizes and all genres are catered for. Certainly a book group no longer need be a group of people sitting together discussing a book once a month over tasty nibbles. Actual or virtual, television or radio, Oprah or Richard and Judy, you can take your pick. Now you don’t all have to be in the same city, country or even on the same continent to join in. Nowadays a whole city or community also can be one big book club, if only temporarily. The community/city book club model began in the USA in 1998. The honour of being the first went to Seattle (the ‘If all of Seattle Reads the Same Book’ project) and since then cities and communities throughout the USA and other countries have followed suit. There are probably now enough projects to merit an enterprising publisher producing a guidebook to ‘One City, One Book‘ events. The original Seattle event organised by Nancy Pearl and The Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library now continues as ‘Seattle Reads’. This year the city is reading Leila Lalami’s Secret Son. Meanwhile over in Europe, ‘One Book, One Edinburgh’ is tackling poetry this year with its ‘Carry a Poem’ project. But I am going to focus here on Dublin’s version of this cultural event and try to give a flavour of what’s on offer to the avid readers of the city in 2010.
Every year for the whole of April Dublin turns itself into one big book group. Well that’s the idea anyway. The ’One City, One Book’ project is now in its 5th year of operation and was initiated by Dublin City Public Libraries. It is ably supported by Penguin Books, Dublin BIDS and Dublin Tourism in putting on and promoting the citywide ‘read in’. A book is chosen which has some connection with Dublin and as many people as possible are encouraged to join in and read it. I think that the connection with the city is a key element here. You are not reading just any old book, you are reading one that has a place in the city’s literary heritage. And as the publicity blurb says ’The project promotes reading in a city which boasts one of the world’s greatest literary heritages including four Nobel Laureates’. Plenty to have a go at in future years then. This event has an obvious appeal for tourists, but also for Dubliners wanting to read something that they may have previously missed. Over the last few years the city has joined together to read: At Swim Two Birds by Flann O’Brien (2006); A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry (2007); Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift (2008) and Dracula by Bram Stoker in 2009. A range of events is usually scheduled for the month in the city libraries and other venues around the city. So you read the book and then go along to some of the lectures, plays, walks, films and musical events. It’s a neat mixing of both the private and public pleasure of reading. With a bit of luck you will also encounter like minded readers with whom to discuss the finer plot points. And what is this year’s book to be? I am pleased to say that it is one of my old favourites, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, a former student of Trinity College, Dublin who nowadays sprawls at his ease in a corner of Merrion Square near his old home. Penguin are issuing an elegant newly jacketed edition of Dorian Gray for the occasion adorned with the project’s logo. An actor, Michael Winder has been engaged to be the ’face’ of Oscar Wilde for the month.
But will this year’s choice of book beat the thrills of last year when Bram Stoker’s Dracula had the honour of being the city’s book at bedtime? The dreaded count was busy haunting the streets of Dublin looking for potential victims even in broad daylight. It was rather disconcerting to be strolling along after a weekend family lunch, only to come face to fang with a vampire. But it was all good clean (and bloodless) fun. There was even a re-enactment of Bram Stoker’s wedding to Florence Balcombe in St Anne’s Church, Dawson Street as part of the programme. Oscar Wilde not surprisingly got a part here too, as a wedding guest, a year ahead of his own starring role. I wonder if Bram will pop up this year to return the favour? For me, one of last year’s highlights was an evening event in the splendid surroundings of St Patrick’s Cathedral. It was a mixture of dramatised readings from the novel and choral music – wonderfully atmospheric. The candle lit cathedral was packed out with hushed and expectant Stoker fans, as figures in monkish robes slowly processed up the central aisle. It was a prickle on the back of the neck moment. Distinctly spooky…
But surprise, surprise not everyone thinks that the idea of a whole community reading one book at the same time is a good idea. If the average book group has critics then a book group this size is bound to have stirred up even more criticism. No less a personage than Harold Bloom has been one of the voices raised against the idea of the community book group model. He was quoted in the New York Times (2002) thus, I don’t like these mass reading bees. It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once. Ever since I came across Bloom’s quote I have found myself wondering what the fastidious Oscar would have thought of being compared to a chicken nugget (of course it could have been worse: turkey twizzler anyone?). Alas poor Oscar. Sadly he is no longer here to think up a crushingly witty riposte to Mr Bloom’s trenchant opinion. The use of junk food as an analogy also put me irresistibly (and unfortunately) in mind of Paul Newman who once said, why fool around with hamburger when you have steak at home?. Does it then follow that a city wide book group is the literary equivalent of infidelity? An analogy too far perhaps? Either way I think Harold Bloom was being somewhat absurd. He also seems to ignore the fact that there is more to these events than passively reading. Engagement with the city itself is often part of the experience as I have said. You can get to know the author’s city on a walking tour or listen to a talk about the writer’s life and work. Of course if the city is reading work by a contemporary writer, (Sebastian Barry for instance) then author visits are usually part of the programme too. Many readers enjoy the chance to quiz writers on their work. I assume that writers get something out of it too (other than stage fright, that is). If you have a cynical turn of mind, you could point out that book sales increase as a result of the publicity.
Judging by the web site set up for the Dublin project (www.dublinonecityonebook.ie) it seems pretty clear that a lot of people do enjoy getting involved in the mass read. Readers may be coming to some of these works for the first time or perhaps revisiting old favourites in the company of others. Comments are encouraged on the discussion area and it’s nice to see people taking up the literary challenge. The city libraries do a brilliant job in promoting reading through an event such as this. And that is really what it is all about, encouraging people to take up a book, read it and go on to read some more. And if at the same time you discover what else is available at the local library then so much the better. The event is surely worthwhile if it introduces a few more people to the pleasure of books and at the same time brings readers together. And in the process, the mass book group is reclaiming the right to read from pointy-headed academics as John Sutherland has so wonderfully expressed it.
This article was previously published on www.Hackwriters.com in 2010 and linked to the One City One Book website during the event.
In 2011 the book chosen was Ghostlight by Joseph O’Connor and in 2012 The Dubliners by James Joyce.