From BookTok’s flourishing community and Instagram channels to the humble IRL meet-up, book clubs have never been more in vogue. And while some clubs aim to explore new ideas and discover a literary masterpiece, others just want to connect with like-minded souls over a tumbler of wine and a bowlful of salty snacks. Yet all have one thing in common: they all build and support a community through their shared love of reading.
So, to celebrate these book-loving spaces across the UK, earlier this summer we launched the first Booker Prize Book Club Challenge. In partnership with The Reading Agency, the challenge invited book clubs to apply to join us in rating and reviewing the Booker Prize 2022 shortlist.
The judges of this year’s prize, chaired by Neil MacGregor, selected six book clubs from over 100 applicants across the country, and each club has been invited to read one of the 2022 shortlisted titles. Two representatives from each club were invited to The Booker Prize 2022 shortlist announcement party in London on September 6, where they met the judges and received copies of their assigned book.
Over the next few weeks the clubs will then read, discuss and review their book, sharing their views online on social media, as well as with the Reading Agency’s community of readers and the Booker Prize website. Members of the club with the most original and engaging reviews will then be invited to attend this year’s Booker Prize winner ceremony in October, too.
The judges were impressed by the passion of the clubs that applied and the range of books to which they have devoted themselves. They were struck, in particular, by the way that the private experience of reading has become a shared pleasure, and how reading fiction has provided solace and friendship to so many during the challenges of the past few years.
Here are the six clubs our judges have chosen to take part (as well as their assigned books), which they feel capture the essence of the UK as a reading nation. We look forward to hearing more from them in the coming weeks.
Born out of lockdown, the Royal Devon Culture Club was set up by three founding members who bonded over books and feminism on Twitter in September last year. The group is run by NHS staff who work at the Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and aims to provide an inclusive space where members read, discuss and listen to books, as well as poetry, podcasts and comedy. They first met formally in November of that year through Microsoft Teams and Twitter, to ‘talk about the things that matter to [them] most’ and their numbers now vary between six and 30 attendees every month. They are passionate about showing how beneficial books can be for wellbeing and mental health.
The Royal Devon Culture Club will read The Trees by Percival Everett.
The Scunthorpe Pageturners have been gathering to discuss books for an impressive 18 years and told us their club of seven has a wonderful mix of ‘enthusiasm and experience’. The group comprises a self-described ‘eclectic’ mix of individuals, including a civil servant, a steel worker, a shop worker, a dinner lady and two retirees. Between them, they have survived four changes of venue and the pandemic, to which they adapted by moving online. They pride themselves on a wide range of reading tastes, and regularly dive into literary fiction, crime and sci-fi. They aim to help fellow readers discover new authors and broaden their horizons.
Scunthorpe Pageturners will read Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan.
The east London-based Casual Readers Club encompasses readers from a range of different backgrounds, who are aged from 19 to 40. Theirs is an inclusive and safe space where members have an ‘earnest and honest connection over books’. With 20 regular members — and nearly a hundred on their mailing list — they say it often takes them ‘quite a while to decide on a book because there is just SO much to read’. They read across genres and chose to highlight books by women of colour for the first six months of this year. While shared experience is important to the club, one of the things they enjoy most is picking up a novel written by authors they don’t share experiences with.
Casual Readers Club will read The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka.
Glasow-based Weegie BeeGee (‘weegie’ being slang for a Glaswegian; BeeGee for book group) tell us they ‘started up in the book group boom of the early 2000s and since then members have come and gone… and come back again’. In that time, their 18 readers have read 172 books by 165 authors and have eaten 113 cakes. These baked goods are an integral element of their club, so much so they even managed to deliver individual slices of cakes to each member for their online meetings during the pandemic. They try to match the cakes to the books, often by location or theme. And while this group favours historical fiction, they often read crime, self-help and even graphic novels. They say they often ‘have quite different opinions’ on the books they read and frequently find their views differ from literary critics.
Weegie BeeGee will read Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo.
Shelter Cymru Chwaeroniaeth, which translates to ‘sisterhood’ in Welsh, are a group of readers committed to social justice and making a difference. But most of all, they just love books. They told us their club in Swansea gives them ‘the freedom to speak freely, behave badly, and embarrass ourselves… free from identities as mothers, daughters, sisters, grandparents, professionals, carers, partners, neighbours, activists’. They use books to explore a range of ideas, stories and perspectives and look ‘for that which unites us, rather than divides’. The members originally met many years ago while working for the charity Shelter, and with ages ranging from mid-fifties to early seventies they have kept in touch for 40 years, supporting each other through births, deaths and career changes, ‘with tears and laughter’.
Shelter Cymru Chwaeroniaeth will read Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Bridge Books, a small bookshop in Dromore, County Down, has been serving its loyal local customers for over 25 years. And while its book club has only been going for six months, it is already 14 members strong and boasts a broad mix of readers who are looking to discover something new. They often challenge themselves to read outside their own preferred genres and told us their favourite book so far has been The Island of Missing Trees by Booker-shortlisted Elif Shafak. As the little shop is bursting at the seams with books, the club meets in a local bar each month, where they discuss a selected book and choose from three titles to read at their next meeting.
Bridge Books book club will read Treacle Walker by Alan Garner.
We are also partnering with a seventh club. While they won’t take part in the social media part of the challenge, we have invited them to read one of our shortlisted books and to share their thoughts with us before the winner announcement.
HMP Bristol LLRC reading group is made up of prisoners and staff within a Category B prison in Bristol, with a range of readers from 18 to 80, and is open to anyone keen to participate in the shared reading experience. The club was established in the last few years as Covid rules impacted other parts of prison regime. Its members tend to be enthusiastic readers who wish to encourage those new to books to join them, and to help nurture a love of literature. They are open to trying new genres and discovering new authors - most recently they have read Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.