I like talking about books. What I like even more is listening to people talk about books. Over the years I have entertained this fetish by listening to CBC Radio and by attending various book festivals around town, most notably the Blue Metropolis festival (which, while still good, was a lot better when it was smaller and less ambitious).
Top of the list on CBC Radio is Writers and Company, with Eleanor Wachtel. I’ve been listening to that show for 20 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad episode. It’s so good that I cry a little bit every week when I think about Ms. Wachtel’s long career; she’s older than me, so in my golden years, while I pass the hours in a squeaky rocking chair next to a warm Tivoli radio, my dear Eleanor will be long retired and Writers and Company will be no more.
The only strike against Writers and Company in the context of this discussion is that it isn’t really about books; it’s about writers. But since writers are more likely to talk about books than anything else, it still counts, and counts big.
CBC’s other books show is The Next Chapter, with Shelagh Rogers. I confess I’m not the hugest fan. I don’t dislike it; in fact I’ve enjoyed many an episode. But its cheery “fan” vibe is a bit much for my taste. All pens and no swords. Hugs and camomile tea. So it’s good, but it’s rarely (to me) great.
Then there’s the late, lamented Talking Books, hosted by Ian Brown. Now there was a books show. The format was a panel discussion, lead by Brown, with various grumpy and curmudgeonly guests, most of whom were regulars. The knives were long and the bouquets were florid. Lots of people talking and yelling over each other and a few times it sounded like it might come to blows but it always ended in laughter. If you told me the setting was a smoky pub on a stormy night I wouldn’t doubt you. Unfortunately, Talking Books was cancelled in 2008, after 11 years.
So what’s a guy to do if he needs a fix of grumpy book talk? He starts a book club!
Last year, while bending elbows with a few of my surliest friends, I proposed exactly that; a book club. The intention was to be as unstructured as possible. As such, we have but one rule: there are no rules. Neither are there required readings. We simply meet, every four to six weeks, and talk about books. If patterns develop, so be it, but they are not to be seen as rules or requirements.
And there does seem to be a pattern. Most of our book club meetings unfold as follows. We meet at Amelio’s on Milton at about 5:30 on a Thursday or Friday evening. Once ensconced we order our “book club special,” a large vegetarian pizza with Italian sausage. I never fail to add, while ordering, “because that’s the kind of vegetarians we are.” The waitress never fails to smile and pretend, ha ha, she’s never heard that before.
After the meal, which is accompanied by an inordinate amount of wine, we over-tip then make our way along rue Milton to The Word, a quiet, beautifully shambled tiny gem of a used bookstore. Having four burly men smelling of sausage, cheese and Sangiovese burst through the door of such an establishment is surely terrifying, but so far the police have not been called and there have been no injuries. We do eventually calm down and manage to keep things reasonably civil, and we always make amends by purchasing a few books.
Unfortunately these wine-fueled book benders have resulted in a few duplications on my bookshelf as I sometimes forget if the luscious object in my hand is one I desire because I want it or because I already own it. In one case I had a copy of Michael Frayn’s Headlong thrust upon me by one of the book club members, along with a five minute oration on its merits. So I bought it. At our next book club meeting the exact scene repeated itself, with the same book, and I bought it again. I also recently discovered that I have not two, but three copies of Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo. One is the paperback I bought at a church flea market in 1986 (my first Moore, and the one that turned me into very much a Brian Moore fan). Another is a first Canadian edition hardcover from 1962 that was given to me as a gift, and the third a hardcover “club edition,” that I likely bought at The Word during a book club meeting.
After The Word we usually end up in a pub downtown, often the Old Orchard on rue de la Montagne because it’s a convenient hub for our divergent exits homeward, and it’s usually not so loud as to it prohibit conversation.
So if you enjoy books, and in particular you enjoy talking about books, I highly recommend you form a book club. But if you want it to succeed I suggest you eschew the usual book club formalities of required readings. And stay away from the tea and crumpets. The most important thing is that you all be friends, and that you all really like books and talking about them. In fact, you can substitute “books” for just about any shared interest and you’ll achieve the same success. And to make it that much better, don’t put it on Facebook, and never, ever tweet about it.