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ThinkBooks: A year in a book club

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WHEN AN E-MAIL from the editor landed in my inbox asking for an opinion on a book I’d read in this dreadful year, three thoughts competed instantly for my attention.

The first was that possessing the ability, much less the desire, to read regularly is a tall order for a movie critic. We generally like to consume our stories as God intended; staring slack-jawed at a screen, shovelling butter-drenched popcorn in our gullets and dribbling nacho cheese down our struggling shirt buttons.

The second was along the lines of, “Bastard! Getting arsey about media on this site is my gig! One I will defend in the Scottish tradition, with a half-finished can of Special Brew in one hand and a Stanley Knife in the other, if necessary”. My colleagues can be reassured that the cans have been bought and the cutting edge has been sharpened… just in case.

The third? Well, that’s where it gets interesting. Because, I just so happened to be the co-founder of a book club this year.

Normally, and I suspect this might apply to lots of people, my reading falls into a pattern consisting of a few genres. I like a combination of classic fiction, particularly revisiting the gothic works I loved growing up as an angsty teenager, young adult fiction as a relaxant that it’s socially acceptable to consume before lunchtime, and, as it says on my online dating profile, anything short, funny, and that doesn’t outstay its welcome after I’m finished with it.

However, now that – thanks to the book club – a large chunk of my reading is decided democratically by a group of my friends, I have found myself reading much more widely than I had before. Over the last year, our group was founded in January, I have read: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, a clever and poignant fantasy that deals with depression, regret, and loss; The Binding by Bridget Collins, a sumptuous slow-burn of a novel that discusses gaslighting through an insightful method of literal memory erasure; The Chain by Adrian McKinty, a not especially deep but utterly compelling modern thriller centred on a digital kidnapping cult; Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, because you can have my modern LGBT YA romance when you pry it from my cold, dead, but well-moisturised, hands; and two rather dull and formulaic pseudo-intellectual romances with barely enough gimmicks in them to get by called Conversations with Friends and The One by Sally Rooney and John Marrs respectively.

However, the quality, consistent as it has been, is hardly the point. We could have decided, as a group, to have read nothing but The Hardy Boys and old copies of Hello! and being a member of a book club would still be something I’d recommend as highly as opening a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for whatever paper-thin reason you can think of. In fact, for the irony fans reading, the books themselves are, quite possibly, the least important part of being in a book club.

From where I sit, our little literary salon consists of three people I’ve known for years, all of whom are very dear to me, and those whom I have only met recently have already become some of my favourite people. In terms of our tastes, approaches, and opinions, we are varied but we’re drawn together by a love of reading and of sharing what we read with each other. While, for regrettably obvious reasons, our ability to meet in person has been curtailed, to the same extent as the elephant man’s ability to participate in his local beauty contest has been curtailed, we have continued to meet every six weeks to chat, catch-up, keep each other sane and motivated, and sip from both a refreshing glass or bottle of something and from a bubbling pot of friendship and camaraderie that has provided invaluable nourishment through these difficult times. I, and I don’t wish to be overly mushy about this, love each and every member of our little group and I would have found it so much more difficult to get through this hard year without having them, and the book club itself, in my life. Thank you guys.

So, as the year 2020 all too slowly fucks off, and thoughts turn to 2021, I’ll close my year here at ThinkScotland by recommending to you, who have been the silent partner in these weekly one-way conversations, that, if you’re of a literary bent, to strongly consider forming a book club. If books aren’t your thing, pick something else and build a small, intimate club around that – movies, music, food, getting strapped to a gurney armed with nothing but a safe word and your own determination… whatever your pastime of choice is, share it with others. The rewards of doing so are boundless and all it takes to get started is a WhatsApp conversation with a friend (in an ideal world, get yourself one with a wizardry for organisation, like my co-founder – she really is a marvel at this kind of stuff and so much more), and a bit of initiative, and you’ll find yourself with something to look forward at whatever time intervals your club chooses.

I leave you with my best wishes for a very Merry Christmas, a happy and prosperous New Year, and my deepest thanks for reading.

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