By Leanne Cloudsdale

The last time I was a member of a book club it was 1984. At the Preston Road Library in Hull, you could turn up Tuesdays after school, sit on small plastic chairs and read Roald Dahl with a Ribena and the other nerds. Never been back to once since. Am I bragging? Nope. Am I missing out? Apparently – because the bookworm is officially BACK.

Sure, it seems a noble pursuit; competitive page-turning and prepping your review for the chosen few. A wholesome evening hobby, getting comfy in a cafe, pub or bookshop with a bunch of like-minded literary types who own reading lights and leather National Trust bookmarks. It ticks all the boxes, but it’s never crossed my mind to join one. For me, a book is something that’s enjoyed solo and read at my own steady pace. Letting another human choose the book I’m about to read feels worse than being trapped in a lift with Suella Braverman. The last time my free will was outsourced was English Literature lessons, when an entire classroom would be forced to power through The Mayor of Casterbridge (or something equally dry) and then unpick the plot in unison, all whilst scratching ‘kill me now’ into the desk with the compass from your trigonometry set.

The thought of hunkering down with a hot chocolate and some chick-lit gives me hives. Before I reach for my ready-readers I’d need a guarantee that Steinbeck, Orwell or at least some hardback Alan Bennett were on the agenda, otherwise I’d be Uber-ring outta there quicker than you could say Margaret Atwood. It feels harsh, chucking muck at these semi-circles of calm, mutual appreciation of the written word, but try as I might, the ‘salon atmosphere’ isn’t for me (which is rich, given I was still playing with Sindy dolls during my last book club foray).

Oprah Winfrey started her own club in 1996, lovingly referred to as the ‘Oprahfication of literacy’. She’d bang on about the lessons we can learn from characters in novels, and shed a televised tear over unexpected romantic outcomes. Us Brits had Richard and Judy suggesting we try Stephen Fry books with a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio. Not quite the same.
With Hay Festival on the horizon – the annual jamboree in Hay-on-Wye, when a small Welsh market town welcomes the card-carrying international literary elite for some highbrow talks and marquee action, it was only fair to give book clubs a glance over. They’re not a new thing, afterall. Scripture reading gangs have been going for hundreds (if not thousands?) of years. We all love the sound of our own voices afterall – or do we?

Not according to Mimi, one happy book club member I prodded for intel. She described, “I was such a non-reader. I hated it at school and continued to avoid it at all costs after leaving. I became slightly embarrassed by my hatred for reading, which stemmed from the fear of being called up to read out in class – the stuff of nightmares for me. The whole thing started in 2021 when I made a New Year’s resolution to read a book a month: launching my own book club was the only way I was ever going to stay accountable. In a world where we’re glued to our screens and can become quite insular on our perspectives based on the content we’re served, it's good to have the impetus to dive into that month’s book as a form of escapism. It beats my nightly
doom scrolling!”

Wander into a bookshop these days and the choice is overwhelming. Splayed out in neat piles on tables, stacked near the tills, full frontal display boards with scrawled handwritten notes of that week’s ‘staff picks’. It’s enough to give anyone a nosebleed. Membership to the inner sanctum is a freemason’s handshake to titles you’d never dream of considering before joining. Knowing you’ve got to critique something in 2 weeks time to a bunch of your peers is probably
the kick up the arse we all need to read more. The dog-eared David Sedaris bangers on my bedside table have been to Europe and back more times than I care to mention. There’s always the plan to relax and plough through them on holiday, but then I see another flea market and I’m

Recently reformed speed-reader Jamie wanted a weeknight change of scene from the usual two-pints-of-lager-and-a-packet-of-crisps-please with his mates. With a grin he explained, “Decent snackage is still part of the deal, but instead of getting silly down the pub, we get together once a month for some proper home-cooked food and talk about the book that was nominated for our 8-man book club. It beats getting smashed – it propagates an entirely different kind of conversation and gives us a rare moment of sensibility. I’ve amazed myself at how quickly I can power through 350+ pages when I know I’ve got book club in 5 days. Nobody wants to rock up looking like an idiot, so it gives a pleasing sense of urgency to complete it on time. I crush it out on the commute or before bed.”

Pull up a chair and pass me the Ribena. Maybe book clubs are the route to enlightenment after