The town I live in has spawned several Book Clubs, largely because of the rather meagre holdings of the municipal library. These clubs also serve an important role in the lives of women of all ages: a legitimate excuse to abandon their families once a month to enjoy the company of friends who share a love of reading.
I was fortunate to be a member of a wonderful group of women who shared a genuine love of reading as well as a healthy disregard for pretentiousness. We shared the books we liked and felt comfortable enough with each other not to mind the cut-and-thrust of healthy criticism of our choices whilst feeling pleased when our choices were hailed as being good ones. Our conversations were generally sparked off by the books we read and ran in so many different directions that by the end of an evening we felt mentally stimulated and our souls were enriched. I use the past tense for my Book Club, already ailing from a haemorrhage of members moving out of town after their retirement, is unlikely to survive the long pandemic-induced lockdown social restrictions.
The name inside the cover of a second-hand book reminded me of a particular Book Club that we tended to regard as being ‘rather snooty’. Potential members were vetted for their suitability in terms of their social status and the intellectual level of their reading matter. We all knew some of them – really pleasant individuals: university lecturers, librarians, wives of the legal or medical fraternity, and even a few heads of departments from local private schools. It appeared to us that one had to have some ‘standing’ within the community to be accepted there – no wonder we laughed.
Private conversations revealed that several members of this Book Club were in awe of the woman whose name is in this second-hand book. As a university professor, she was their ‘highest ranked’ member. She held fixed views and hated to be criticised. It appeared that her opinion about books and authors were paramount.
She was an interesting person in her own right. While outwardly successful, with a fine house and an upmarket car to show for it, she nonetheless remained needy. She was needy in terms of demanding her share of the limelight. Professionally, she was driven and competitive. She volunteered to serve on any committee that would bring her into, or keep her within, the sphere of ‘power’. She needed to be close to what she regarded as the most powerful people within her academic field; she needed to rub social shoulders with the financially ‘better off’ and what she regarded as ‘influential’ members of our small society.
This woman was sure to be seen at every book launch, opening of an art exhibition, charity events and social functions that she perceived would benefit her profile. There were many who sniggered at her fixed smile, sparkling gold jewellery and carefully styled hairdo. She always dressed impeccably. Some of her professional colleagues wilted under her sharp tongue – they didn’t often experience the charm she turned on in public. We knew that several members of her Book Club sighed with relief whenever she wasn’t able to attend a meeting.
Retirement hit this woman hard for with it she lost a public platform on which to parade. Our town is filled with retired academics, so they are not regarded with any of the ‘awe’ she thought she ought to enjoy. Adding to her woes was the pandemic which kept us all at home for nearly two years. She wrote papers for any online journal that would accept one, but this didn’t give her the public exposure she craved. She turned her hand to creative writing, which helped to raise her profile within a very small writing circle. It pained her when so few people recognised her or greeted her when she walked around the suburbs once the pandemic restrictions were eased to allow exercise. The pandemically-induced social restrictions cheated her out of hosting a glittering farewell when she and her husband decided to leave town. Her final ‘hurrah’ was not to be.
Hers is one of the Book Clubs that has survived the pandemic. After years of kow-towing to her ‘superior views’, the members now laugh a lot more; they tease each other; they feel free to choose a wide variety of books simply for the pleasure of reading instead of as an intellectual exercise; they argue about books and authors – and they are all very happy.