Rules of Engagement

Our reading group was due to have its inaugural meeting on September 11th, 2001. Needless to say it didn’t happen. Too many rules had been broken that day along with minds, hearts and hopes. We all needed to be with our families that night.

Our group has been in existence for eleven years and we are six. It wasn’t always this way.

After 9/11 we established our own rules of engagement. Important, we agreed, to maintain order, conviviality and a purpose. We would meet each month, except the summer holidays, (rule #1) of an evening (rule #2) in each home in turn (rule #3) to discuss the chosen book. We would also (rule #4) consume some, non gourmet, nibbles, drink wine (no chardonnay for me thank you) and keep in touch now our daughters were moving up to senior school.   

Rereading my last paragraph I can now see how rule number five appeared on page one of the manifesto. (rule #5) No men.

We were nine and we are now six. The first to leave was S…….., our testosterone. He resigned, with some alacrity, early on in 2002. Too much ‘white noise’, I’m told by his confident, from one particular member who, to this day, takes the daughter discussion to a higher plane (not in a good way), has always done that thing better, has the same but bigger and knows someone with something far more life threatening. It isn’t me, thankfully. I like men to like me.

Honestly, I was sorry he left because he introduced me to Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun (parents battling to deal with their son’s confession to murder) and because he had a pair of Darcey Bussell’s pointe shoes hanging in his hallway that I never got the opportunity to steal.

Then we were eight.

The first book that received unanimous approval was Bel Canto by Ann Pachett. Hostages are taken while listening to opera in South America but fear turns to something more as the plot unfolds. J……. played opera’s best bits in the background and served parsnip crisps, a novelty back then.

Every rule ticked and another added. (rule #6) The book chooser hosts. And so an order was established that, eleven years later, I still do not get and am always surprised/unprepared when it’s my turn. (Unwritten rule #7) D…… keeps the order a closely guarded secret and controls all dissension.

The move from eight to seven happened more organically. R……. would get excited over every read, her turn, venue and time. She is most excitable. But she rarely read the book, never finished it (“Don’t talk about the ending. I don’t want it to be spoilt”), seldom arrived on time and most often cancelled at the last minute even when it was at her house.

Having devoured The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), a suspenseful nineteenth century page turner some fool suggested we go to see it at the theatre. I think it is the worst musical I have ever endured although My Fair Lady comes a close second. Anyway, R……., very excited about our great adventure, bought her ticket and never showed up. What a waste of £45.00 or indeed had she, with some sense, read the reviews?

I had been mentioning, repeatedly, that involving her in any arrangement was an utter waste of time and energy and others began to agree. She is now married to a Parisian but lives, I believe, in North London. He must understand what we put up with as he still lives in Paris.

Thus the, you would think it was bleeding obvious, rule was scribed. (rule #8) Read/finish the book. R……. thought it best to leave the group.

Years passed, our daughters grew, we recorded the books read and it was my turn again.

This time I prepared themed nibbles to celebrate Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s classic tragedy of love, loss and train motifs and welcomed but one attendee to my door. Some uncomfortable vodka and Russian caviar later and realising no one else was coming I wished her gone. I’m sure she wished herself gone. She left.

I was 1) not happy 2) somewhat mollified to receive flowers by way of apology and 3) forced to drive through a rule change. This shabby show was not going unrecorded.

As I write this, memories of that uneaten caviar tantalising my taste-buds, Anna Karenina is on at the movies. I am terrified to go. My love of this heroine in direct proportion to my fears that Keira Knightley will Keira Knightley my Anna and spoil EVERYTHING. Someone tell me I am wrong.

The past five years our reading group has met for lunch in local cafes, pubs or restaurants. (rule #9) Time change. (rule #10) Professionals produce the food. No – shows are accepted with equanimity because personal effort is minimal. It has been harder to find acceptable dates but, to paraphrase Rohan Mistry, the balance is finer.

J……. moved away and we are the quorum of six. (rule #11) No one can join our reading group. I hadn’t realised this but it is true. Unspoken, yes. Incontrovertible, yes. Inviolable, I think so.

Now the rules appear to be morphing again and I’m not sure I approve. (rule #12 proposed) The chooser of the book prepares and hosts supper in their home. At least it’s not my turn for a while. Or is it?

Here, finally, we come to a major dilemma I am having. The group is meeting next Thursday and I have just bought the book. It is long but I love a long, good read. It is nicely pressed and the type is large enough. I begin to get excited. No cleaning for me this week my time will be taken up reading. And then I scan the blurb. It is a journey, a journey set in Napoleonic Germany. I read faster. This could still be ok. But no. Our protagonist is to get stuck in Wandenburg (yes spellcheck, it is MADE UP) gaaagh…fantasy full of ‘shifting geography’ arrrrgh and the ‘befriending of an old organ grinder’. Please no.

I just know N……. hasn’t read it. She has form. The Quincunx, her previous crime. But as a proponent of and adherer to rule number eight I am truly on the horns. Unable to finish the aforementioned Qc I appear unable to begin Andres Neuman’s Traveller of the Century and I have traitor’s guilt especially since N……. is making my tea.

Dear Reader, what to do?

Is it time, Dear Reader, to introduce the dreaded (rule #13)? Books chosen must be pre-loved by the hostess. I value you opinion.

PS: We have been planning a ten year trip away for the last three years. Now well overdue, we are Christmas shopping in New York this December by way of remembering all those affected by events on the day we first recorded an entry in our reading group diary. ‘Meeting postponed’.

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12 thoughts on “Rules of Engagement

  1. I’ve never joined a reading group and it is an open question why. Possibilities. 1. I’m an introvert. 2. I’m a man. 3. My male friends who like to read live in different states. 4. The women I know in reading groups in my neighborhood don’t include my wife and going without her to a reading group full of women would make me feel odd, awkward, or creepy. 5. I couldn’t join a reading group with my wife because when we read the same book, she likes it, and I don’t, whatever I say about the book has the unintended effect of seeming to criticize her for liking it. Flower-buying ensues. 6. God knows what I’d pick and most people wouldn’t want my taste inflicted on them.

    I like the posts about the reading group because I think they make clear that the real story you’ve been reading the last ten years is the story of the group. And maybe that’s how it should be? Reading fiction is about imaginatively engaging with fictional people. Aren’t reading groups about imaginatively engaging with real people? And the books are a sideline?

    And apropos of Knightley’s Anna — I say, let it be different than yours! The interesting thing about movie versions of books is the interpretation, even if it is subjectively, or objectively, or flagrantly wrong-headed. P.

    1. I love your reply. I have a whole blog I could write about hubby buying flowers on a speed dating timer.
      The book group… I had forgotten testosterone’s wife was also included but didn’t feature in my mind’s eye. What does that say about me?
      We have been going 12 years and I think we are a bit like the Mitford sisters now. Only death can part us.
      I saw Anna K and apart for a moment where she was Keira, I loved Keira and my Anna therefore.
      And so I ask….
      What’s your favourite book of all time?
      I think mine might be A Suitable Boy but as always I’m open to suggestion.

  2. I joined a book club about a year ago. They have been going for about as long as yours, but clearly do take new people on board! I kept it very quiet that I’d taught lit at Cambridge for a decade or so, as I thought it might be enough to get me chucked out. But by now I think most people know. I love what Peter says about your post being the story of the group. It was fascinating to see all the changes you’d been through. I do think we are never so much ourselves as when we are reading a book (that’s why it hurts when people don’t like the books we do, or when others refuse to accept our interpretations – it can feel all too personal). So with so many egos on view, it’s no surprise that book clubs undergo a few crises and traumas! I hope you get your holiday away though. I just heard of another book group doing that and with the right choice of location, it could be a blast.

    1. It seems to be stuck in the eternal planning stage. Again personalities vie for supremacy. We are meeting tomorrow for Christmas lunch at a location defectors home in South Kensington (where I used to live many moons ago) Us country bumpkins are getting overwrought with excitement at the prospect and are discussing Blindness by José S…… (I feel I can do that to a Cambridge lit lecturer 🙂 since I cannot remember the Nobel prize winner’s surname.

  3. Oh dear! I have always thought I wouldn’t be a very good member of a book club and you have confirmed that fact. I don’t want to waste time reading a book I don’t like when there are so many great books I haven’t got to yet.

    1. It’s funny because it is so much of our lives now and where our daughters were 11 they are now 22!

      It’s so much more than a book club but certainly does not come without angst.

      Thank you for reading and liking my ‘back catalogue’.
      I’m too busy to write at the moment and it’s a bit like withdrawal…

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