A few weeks ago, I received a call from New Brunswick from a woman who was a member of the oldest book club in Canada, based in Saint John. I didn’t know there was such a thing, but indeed there is, and it seems to be rather elite: it is called The Eclectic Reading Club – Instituted 1870.
I read all about it in an article that was sent to me by a member. Not just anyone can join. You need to be voted in, and it looks as if you must enjoy sipping sherry and whiskey sodas. They meet seven times a year at their homes, although they’re now on Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions. The 45 members do not all read the same book; rather, one member selects a book and reads aloud to the group.
“It’s more of a salon” says the article by New Brunswick journalist Julia Wright. And here’s another significant feature: The members dress in formal evening wear — pearls and gowns and tuxedos. “There’s not a clip-on bow tie in the house” explains it well, I think.
My friends Liz and Geoff and I started our own book club on their farm here in Saanich. Every Sunday morning, we sit around the wood stove in their cosy living room in big, comfy, faded pink chairs and I read Middlemarch by George Elliot aloud (I struggle with the lengthy sentences and enormous words, which often have an inth or an ism attached).
We only tackle one chapter a week. We chat and chuckle over the little nuances of Dorothea, who wears an ill-fitting straw hat “like a basket” instead of a lacy bonnet, and her uncle, the dull, namedropping Mr. Brooks, who mentions that he had dinner with a somewhat uninspiring poet, a Mr. Wordsworth, or whilst in London, ran into his old friend William Wilberforce, the independent parliamentarian who led the movement to abolish slavery (one of my personal heroes).
The book I would like to recommend this week is A History of Reading by the Canadian author Alberto Manguel (Alfred A. Knopf Canada). Although it was published in 1996, this marvellous book is still in print, due to its extremely thorough and fascinating, entertaining content, which covers everything from the French author and playwright Colette (including a photo of the rather morose looking 80-year-old with a flaming birthday cake on her lap) to the world’s tiniest book from the 17th century (entitled Enclosed Flower Garden), the slave readings of 1856 and the Penguin classics. Absolutely everything to do with books and reading is in this fabulous book. I can’t put it down.
One chapter that strongly resonated with me is Being Read To. In one of many examples of the joy and necessity of reading aloud, in Cuba in the 1850s, cigar workers who had to roll tobacco leaves all day were read to, both to alleviate the hours of boredom and to encourage literacy, personal and political thought, and individual refection. This tradition carried on into the 1920s with Cuban immigrants in the United States. The book describes how they were read novels and the reader “was expected to interpret the characters by imitating their voices, like an actor.”
One of the early reading groups was established by women spinners. They had a narrator read on cold winter nights as they spun their threads around the fire, remarking that “the men of their time incessantly write defamatory lampoons and infectious books against the honour of the female sex.”
Reading aloud was also thought to cure ailments. The philosopher and author Diderot, in 1781, wrote a “prescription” to the doctor for his wife, Nanette: “… four chapters of Don Quixote … infuse in a reasonable quantity Jacques the Fatalist …”
I wonder what Diderot would prescribe for us in these strange times?
When I was very young, I spent summers with my Gran at her cottage on Galiano Island. On warm summer evenings, she’d put me to bed between cool white sheets, the little room fragrant with Raid bug spray, and she would read me Grimm’s Fairy Tales (the gorier and more frightening the better). It was glorious — I was not in this world but far, far away, and sometimes, then as now, that is an ideal prescription.
Although they’re not Canadian, book lovers may also enjoy Book Towns, Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed World by Alex Johnson (2018, Quartro Publishing, U.K.), which mentions Sidney, and It’s a Book by Lane Smith (2010, Roaring Book Press, New York, New York), an absolutely delightful children’s picture book about the love of books.