Turns out asking someone what books they read is akin to asking what kind of underwear they prefer. Or at least it was with a group of people attending a workshop I led a couple of weeks ago. I was shocked at how a seemingly innocuous ice-breaker question could have caused such offence.
It’s not like I was asking them to declare when they read the book or if they read it all the way through. For all I cared they could have read the summary of the back of a book at the airport. The point was I wanted them to share something beyond the usual name, job title and why they would rather be back at their desk having more fun than being locked in a room with me for two days.
We had just endured some pretty low-grade coffee and that may have raised the level of crankiness in the room. Who knows? Thankfully there were enough bookish people to break the frosty atmosphere and the awkward moment passed. When I snuck in a final check-out question at the end of two days asking people what was the next book they were going to read, our two-day bonded workshop community were swopping book suggestions with gusto.
Reading is an incredibly personal thing. Even if you are one of millions of people who have read the same book, your experience of reading is entirely unique to you. I guess this is part of the fun of being in a book club where you can discuss what you think. I’m a fan of the BBC podcast of A Good Read where people review the book they consider, as the programme title suggests, is a good read. Often panel members are in violent agreement yet sometimes there are wide-ranging perspectives. It’s a great introduction to books that might not otherwise cross your consciousness and I’ve read a few of the books featured because the panel made the books sound so intriguing.
My mother-in-law is a born again fan of George Elliot and has in the past joined the annual pilgrimage from Nuneaton to London to celebrate the life and works of this Victorian novelist. I’ve always been more of a Jane Austen groupie and failed many times to break through the barriers of the early chapters of Elliot’s books. It always puzzled me to see Middlemarch up there on the best books ever written list and could never fathom what was I missing. Discussing books during my in-laws visit to New Zealand earlier in the year they once again raved about Elliot’s books although did admit they are something of an acquired taste.
Since then I have broken my Elliot virginity. Although tempted to listen to the abridged version that would be cheating, even if I cringed at the prospect of 28 hours of Victoriana. About 8 hours into the recording, equal to more than a week’s basset walks, I still wasn’t loving this book. The characters were not likeable, the plot had taken a walkabout and my 21 century feminism hackles were standing to attention. I had a little rant about my progress on our weekly FaceTime call but my in-laws seemed unmoved. The Taurean in me stirred at the suggestion that I might start with another of Elliot’s books that might be “easier”. So, I persevered.
After 28 hours of George Elliot’s Middlemarch the frustrating thing is that I think I now need to read the book. In my impatience to find out what everyone raved about I missed out on my experience of the book. It’s a good book if I did not find it a great read. You see the characters really aren’t that likeable, the plot meandering and social attitudes to women in that time only make me grateful I was born in the 1960s.
Although sharing laundry space means that there are no secrets in our family about what our underwear preference are, I will be uncorking a decent bottle of New Zealand’s pinot to share with my in-laws in a few weeks and we can then declare our Middlemarch book club open for business. You never know, I might even have to take a little George Elliot Pilgrimage myself.