Over the years, I have learned that it isn’t always prudent to fill every pause or prolonged silence in a conversation with a “Have you read this book, it’s brilliant” or “Which book are you reading now?” and “Oh, do you want to borrow this book (Please borrow this book, you won’t regret it)?”
So, I control myself and ration these out. I assess the setting and see if I can slide in a recommendation, casually of course — it’s really not a big deal (that this book will change your world).
This doesn’t mean that I have changed myself, only that I have almost successfully repressed that urge which makes me want to thrust books at unsuspecting friends and strangers, or sit them down for long meandering conversations about this character or that plot device, or ask them what can perhaps come across as random questions — do they dog-ear their books? Have they paid large, wallet-emptying library fines? Do they like being read aloud to?
The thing is, I like this part of me, and I wouldn’t want it to disappear completely (though sometimes, coupled with a manic glint and a giant hardback, it can admittedly be a little frightening). So I did the only thing I could do — I joined a book club.
I had been looking for one anyway, and for years now, I’d trawl the web for the right fit, give up and play with the idea of starting one myself, give that up and wait for someone to do it instead. My procrastination bore fruit, and Nidhi Srivastava, who works with Unique Shiksha, decided to pick up the slack. “I sounded out the idea with my friends and, in fact, the first people to sign up for the club were my parents.” Nidhi named her club Delhi BYOB (Bring Your Own Book), conceptualising it in a way that brought together a little bit of everything — book discussions, exchanges, recommendations, critiques, introductions and snacks. Every reader will vouch for this— snacks are important.
Delhi BYOB reinvents the basic idea of a book club. “Instead of the entire group reading one book and discussing it, each member talks about a book of his/ her choice. Moreover, members exchange books with each other,” says Nidhi. She adds that the concept of little free libraries was a huge inspiration for her. Delhi BYOB’s page explains the concept in great detail, provides answers to some of the most common questions, and lists out rules — like how you can only borrow a book if you bring one and, of course, losing a book is heavily frowned upon.
Last week, Delhi BYOB had its first meeting, and found its first 18 members. On a group message, Nidhi had given us the address (her home), the time (3.00 p.m. on Sunday), and directions (which I should have followed). After I crossed the same spot three times in quick succession, a kindly but increasingly suspicious watchman helped out and I reached Nidhi’s home to find a wonderfully mixed group of members, very professional-looking forms to fill, book-cards with our names printed on them, and oh, the books we had brought along.
We were, essentially, a loosely connected group of people, and everyone seemed to know at least one other person in the room, but not too many. The initially stilted first hellos and shy “what do you dos” made their rounds till Nidhi declared the meeting open, and then, we concentrated on the simple question of what next. Considering that this was the first meeting, we were only just testing the waters and by group consensus, decided on a quick round of basic introductions, and then to the books.
Classroom-style introductions don’t tell you much about a person, but they did tell us that ours was a very varied group; from publishers, editors, lawyers, and bureaucrats to doctors, homemakers and photographers, from members in their early 20s to their late 50s. Of course, it was the next round of conversations that told us much more.
The first book on the table was Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower , introduced by Nidhi, who gave us a brief plot outline, and filled us in about what she liked and didn’t, and why she would recommend it.
We didn’t really know each other, but most of us did know the book. So while the usual small talk had been stilted, the book discussion wasn’t. We jumped in, contributing opinions, sounding them out, comparing the book to the movie, discussing the screenplay and so on. Suddenly, everyone was talking over each other, laughing, disagreeing and confiding.
Chobsky and Nidhi had set the stage, and we kept up this rhythm for the rest of the meeting. Every title got its own few minutes under the scanner, some more than the others, of course. We spent several minutes over Manu Joseph’s dark, beautifully crafted humour in The Illicit Happiness of Other People , a shorter while pondering Meena Kumari , the biography by Vinod Mehta, and a substantial time over Robin Sharma’s Leadership Wisdom .
Quite like the members, the books that came to the first Delhi BYOB meeting were varied. We covered a range of genres — historical non-fiction, romance, contemporary drama, thriller, mystery, autobiography, fantasy and even self-help. Not all of us would pick every book that we talked about that day, but I don’t think anyone regretted the time we spent listening to those who loved them.
And as we talked, we learnt about each other too. Among us, there were people who loved unpredictable plots, hated big books and were infinitely irritated by most Young Adult fiction. There were readers who had only just picked up their first books, people who had given up on the habit years ago and were only returning to it now. There were hard covers and paperbacks and books on kindles and smartphones. If ever an afternoon had a theme, this was it.
Of course, the variety was welcome, illuminating even. But partly because of this variety and partly because of the limited time, our discussion couldn’t quite reach the depth I had hoped for. We talked about Bukowski but couldn’t quite unravel his style, picked up Khaled Hosseini but only touched on the positives. With close to 20 books, the time each got was limited, and every discussion ended quite unfulfilled. “I think from the next meeting, I’ll restrict the number of people and keep it low. A smaller group might be a better way to go about things,” says Nidhi, but she sounds tentative. It’s very early days yet, after all.
As the meeting broke, the conversation, so far contained by the books we were concentrating on, flowed freely. People mingled, lingering over conversations and collecting recommendations. I found a few too — for horror, I made a mental note to look up Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves; for classics, I had always meant to read John Irving’s Cider House Rules . In return, I distributed my own suggestions (Jude Morgan for regency romances, Thomas Ott for graphic novels, M.C. Beaton for cosy murder mysteries), and realised that I didn’t need to pace myself anymore. Here, I was expected to talk about books, and it was okay if that was all I did.