At the recent conference of the Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA-2009, click here for website), I heard someone say: "The whole activity of interpretation has moved from departments of literature to reading groups." (I am sorry I don't remember who said it, but if it was you, or if you know who it was, I would be grateful if you would let me know.) In any event I think this is a very interesting idea, and perhaps correct. It would represent, I think, three kinds of movement. One is a democratization of interpretation, that moves its locus from a small number of people, such as certain university teachers of literature who—equipped with the correct interpretations of canonical works—would instruct others on these interpretations (see a previous post on interpretation by clicking here). A second is an implication of the Reader Response movement, in which the variety of responses to works of literature has become no longer problem but a feature. A third is the way in which interpretation is made no longer as a pronouncement but as a contribution to a conversation which is itself part of a relationship.
I have been a founding member of two reading groups, one in Edinburgh that ran for about three years, and one in Toronto that has run for 18 years. In both groups we read only novels—well pretty much only novels, although we've had a few lapses into memoir and biography. Both of these groups were of friends, and we met, and continue to meet, as a reading group about once a month. Our current group has nine members (five women and four men) which for us is about the right size. I think for me there are two distinctively lovely features of these groups. First is the wonderful variety of experience of works of fiction, so that things that I completely did not see in what we have read, or did not realize, or did not understand, were seen, realized, understood and thought about by other people in the group, and so in the group discussion they are added to my own experience of the book. It's quite common in the group for someone to say: "Well, I didn't like the novel all that much, but the discussion was better than the book." The second is that by relating what we read to our personal experience, the relationships among the members of the group, and our understandings of each other, are deepened and extended.
Reading groups have become widespread. Although there are, I believe, a number of books about how to start and how to run a reading group, the best book of information on reading groups that I know is by Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey (2001; I see the book was reissued as a 2002-2003 edition with a foreword by Margaret Forster). Hartley and Turvey conducted a survey of reading groups, mostly in UK, but also world-wide. In 2000 they estimated that there might be as many as 50,000 reading groups in Britain and 500,000 in America. In their main survey, of 350 groups in UK, they were able to find both a range of types of group, and to depict what the typical group was like. About two thirds of reading groups were women only, most of the rest were mixed, and just a few were men only. A typical reading group—it turns out—is rather like the one I am in. It tends to meet about once a month, and is more likely to read fiction than non-fiction. Amongst other results of their survey Hartley and Turvey came up with the three favourite reading group books which are as follows (with the number of groups in the 350-group sample that have read each in parentheses): Louis de Bernières Captain Corelli's mandolin (81), Frank McCourt Angela's ashes (71), and Arundhati Roy The god of small things (58). As an indication of how typical is the group I am in, we have read all three of these.
Perhaps most interestingly, Hartley and Turvey give a general sense of great enthusiasm with many people looking forward eagerly to the next meeting of the group. Here are two quotes: "We enjoy feeling totally free to express our own opinions," and "Discussions can be anything from profound to hilarious, but are always lively."
In a more recent study, Zazie Todd (2008) has sought to characterize the kind of discussions that take place in reading groups. In her abstract she says:
Analysis of the transcripts from 21 discussions of contemporary novels showed that participants used the plot as a way of anchoring their discussions. Participants often expressed sympathy and empathy for the characters, and described it as a problem when this did not occur. The group discussions also seem to show some evidence of what Miall and Kuiken (2002) call self-modifying feeling. They also revealed a search for a meaning within the book, and participants sometimes found quite different meanings, linking the text to their own emotional and autobiographical responses.Jenny Hartley & Sarah Turvey. (2001). Reading groups. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
David Miall & Don Kuiken (2002). A feeling for fiction: Becoming what we behold. Poetics, 30, 221-241.
Zazie Todd (2008) Talking about books: A reading group study. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2, 256-63.