In BBC The Reading Group, we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading.
In this programme, we join a group of book lovers at their meeting with award-winning, Nigerian author Ben Okri. Writer Susan Osborne offers advice on how to set up your own reading group.
Listen to the BBC The Reading Group Part 5 programme:
ANNOUNCER: You’re listening to The Reading Group from the BBC World Service. In this series we bring together listeners, students of English, literature teachers and other contributors from the world of books to share their enthusiasm for reading. We hope that following this series will encourage your own interest in reading books in English as a foreign language.
Gary: Hello. In The Reading Group today, we join a group of book lovers at their meeting with an award-winning, Nigerian author.
But first, some advice for those of you who are ready to take your first reading group steps.
In Britain people are describing reading groups as a phenomenon that’s
sweeping the country. In North America, it’s been estimated that as many as 5 million people belong to a book club of some sort.
If you’re not in one already, perhaps you’ve decided that you want to join a reading group yourself. So, how do you find a reading group? How do you join one? How do you start your own reading group?
Well, in today’s programme, we meet the first of two guests who may be able to help. Susan Osborne’s Essential Guide to Reading Groups was published by Bloomsbury in October 2002. Her publishers promise that this book tells you everything you need to know!
Susan: Hello. I’m a freelance writer, a lifelong reader, and I’m also the reviews editor of a magazine.
Gary: Susan, how do you explain the growing number of reading groups?
Susan: I think they’re enormously appealing for people who like to read because they make reading a more social activity, and you can share books that you love with friends, meet new friends, and read perhaps in a more focused way than you would if you were reading just for yourself.
Gary: We’ve had people write to us saying they’d love to join a reading group. Do you have any advice on how to find one?
Susan: Perhaps the first thing to do would be to talk to friends, colleagues and acquaintances. You may find that you already know someone who is part of a reading group. If that doesn’t work, try asking in a bookshop or a library. And I think that the British Council, for instance, are quite keen to establish reading groups as they are very keen on promoting British culture worldwide. So it might be worth getting in touch with them. They might know something locally.
Gary: Well, that’s a good idea for some of our listeners certainly. Maybe approach your local British Council office and see if they know of any reading groups or they are thinking about starting one. What about the practical arrangements of a reading group? Let’s say you’ve got some friends together and you want to start a reading group of your own. How can you make sure it’s going to run smoothly? What do you need to do?
Susan: I think the first thing you need to do is have an initial administrative meeting to decide what you, as a group of readers, want to get out of the group. Then move on to more detailed aspects such as who might lead the group. A reading group does need a leader to give discussions something of a structure. For instance, if you choose to meet in each others houses it could be the host, or it could be the person who chose the book to be discussed. Perhaps also you need to decide where you are going to meet. Would you like to meet in each others homes or would you prefer more neutral ground? Perhaps a room in a library or a bookshop or your local university?
Gary: How do you choose what to read at your reading group?
Susan: Some people may already have some favourite books that they want to discuss.
Perhaps you might like to think about looking at English language newspapers and magazines for bestseller lists and reviews. Ask booksellers and librarians for recommendations. Also the internet is a wonderful resource for reviews and recommendations.
Gary: What you’ve not mentioned is the information provided in your own book!
You’ve provided a list of 50 books as recommendations, and there are summaries of the plots and the themes. That’s also a very useful starting point.
Susan: Well, I hope so, yes. The 50 books that I’ve chosen are all books which have quite a lot to discuss which I think is very important for reading groups.
Gary: You also give a list of very useful questions to help get the discussion started.
Susan: That’s right. Those are pointers for people. Sometimes it can be difficult to get a discussion started. People might say, did you like the book and the answer will be yes and that’s it. So the idea of the guides is to give a framework for discussion, although it’s entirely up to group whether they want to follow that, but it would be a good starting point for people.
Gary: Well, Susan Osborne, some very useful tips there. Thank you very much for joining us.
As you may know, the BBC World Service has a World Book Club, which invites leading authors to answer questions from a studio audience and from listeners. We sent a reporter from The Reading Group to attend one of their recording sessions.
Insert 1 – Ben Okri / World Book Club package
The special guest at a recent World Book Club recording was the Nigerianborn author Ben Okri. I, and other members of the studio audience, were invited to read and then talk with him about his novel The Famished Road, for which he won the prestigious booker prize in 1991.
The Famished Road is an epic myth of Nigeria, narrated by a special child called Azaro. On one level, Azaro lives with his hard-working parents in a compound, but on another level, Azaro lives a spirit existence as an Abiku child.
Abiku children are born, they die young and then they are reborn.
World Book Club presenter Harriet Gilbert first invited Ben Okri to read an extract from near the beginning of his novel, where Azaro describes the life of Abiku children.
Clip from programme – Ben Okri, reading extract from The Famished Road:
As we approached another incarnation we made pacts that we would return to the spirit world at the first opportunity. Those of us who made such vows were known among the living as Abiku – spirit children. Not all people recognised us.
We were the ones who kept coming and going, unwilling to come to terms with life. We had the ability to will our deaths. Our pacts were binding. We are the strange ones with half of our beings always in the spirit-world.
Annemarit: After the recording, there was a chance for the studio guests to mingle and talk less formally about the evening’s events. I joined the queue to speak to Ben Okri, and spoke to other members of the audience as I waited.
Annemarit: What aspects did you like about this book?
Female 1: I think the fact that it lives on 10, 11, 12 years after it was written, and it’s as fresh now as it was then is probably what attracts me most to it. It’s been described as a timeless book, and that’s a very apt description. Also for me it’s a book that speaks into many nations and cultures. It’s a book that transcends culture and nationality, gender, age. It’s a book that speaks directly from and to the spirit, and it’s that that appeals to me more than anything.
Annemarit: What did you think of the book?
Male: I found it absolutely amazing. I read it maybe about 7 years ago and I was completely transported by it. … First of all, the main character, Azaro, the fact that he was a spirit child, and the whole world that he’d lived in, because the whole book started in a kind of cinematic technicolour. In terms of how he described that whole world, it was so beautiful.
Annemarit: What did you think of this evening? Did you enjoy meeting the author?
Female 2: It was a wonderful event, tonight’s discussion with Ben Okri. I was saying to another member of the audience, that what I will take away from the night, and what will last with me for a long time, is the thought that went into Mr Okri’s answers. The sheer weight and beauty and power of his answers were quite staggering, so it was a beautiful, wonderful evening.
Annemarit: What’s your opinion of The Famished Road?
Female 3: It’s an amazing book and it’s incredibly hard to describe because it’s quite unusual. There are elements of magic and realism, but at the core of it is a message about the power of the individual, the power of every single person.
Annemarit: Would you mind signing my book, please?
Ben Okri (author): It would be a pleasure. What’s your name?
Annemarit: Annemarit. ..I enjoyed this evening very much and I was wondering what you thought about all these questions that were asked to you.
Ben Okri: I think these events are really made by the quality of the questions. Where the questions are not just about the book, but also about the person asking the question – and more than that, they’re about the wider listeners, cause I had this feeling of the 3 dimensions that the questions were coming out of. That’s how we should ask our questions. We should always ask questions from out of ourselves, but beyond ourselves, to include other people. I got that very much today and I was very pleased with that.
Gary: Now Gillian Lazar joins us again – this time, with a guide to help you get to grips with “the voice” of a book. Who is telling the story? And can you trust them?!
Insert 2 – Gillian Lazar
A detective investigating a crime listens carefully to the evidence of the people connected with it: the witnesses or suspects. The detective has to evaluate their stories – are they lying or telling the truth? Does their personality or past experience shape the way they see things? Reading a novel is like being a detective. The reader is drawn into the story being told, but knows that the story is shaped by its teller – the narrator. How does the narrator describe and interpret the events in the story? What is the narrator’s point of view? Like a detective, the reader needs to empathise with the narrator by trying to understand the narrator’s version of events. But, also like a detective, the reader needs to critically evaluate the narrator’s perspective – is it valid or not? How, as readers, can we do this more effectively?
We can begin by identifying what kind of narrator is telling the story. In novels with a third-person narrator, the narrator seems to be outside the actions in the story. This kind of narrator may have unrestricted knowledge of all the characters and events in the novel. In Bleak House, for example, a novel by Charles Dickens, the narrator presents a large cast of characters, linked through a complicated plot. But while a third person narrator may seem to be rather objective and distanced, they often describe events from the point of view of one character rather than another. And if they do, we might want to ask ourselves how events would be described by another character in the novel? In addition, we might ask ourselves what the attitude of the narrator is towards the characters – is the narrator laughing at them, sympathising with them or condemning them?
We can do the same for novels that are written in the first person too. A novel written in the first person tells the story from the perspective of a narrator who is often the main character in the novel. One famous example is J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye in which the story is told by the teenage boy, Holden Caulfield, who is also its main character. But we may ask ourselves if we can believe what Holden says. How would the story be different if it was told by his parents or teachers or even an older version of himself? And if we are feeling creative, we may want to write their version of events, for example by writing a fictional diary entry for one of them and how they see things.
A good detective knows that there are many versions of events. By being aware of this, we as readers can critically engage with the point of view expressed by the narrator in a novel. And by doing so, our own point of view is both challenged and enriched.
Gary: Thanks to Gillian Lazar. Next time you can hear the last of her special talks for this series. And we visit a library in London which is no stranger to revolution.
ANNOUNCER: And that brings us to the end of today’s programme. If you’d like to share your reading experiences, you can join our BBC Learning English group on Facebook. We’ll have topics on the Discussion board linked to the subjects covered in The Reading Group programmes. So, until next time, happy reading!
Source: BBC Learning EnglishMore Series for You: