I must admit to several character weaknesses in my personality make-up. Call me squeamish, but I don’t like confrontations. I go out of my way to avoid confrontations. I am also a creature given to contradictory, usually short-lived but very genuine, enthusiasms. I have a near-compulsive need to rationalise; I try with the best of my abilities to put myself in others’ shoes; I try to understand; I attempt to find reasons when there are no reasons to be found; and then I try to convince myself, against my better judgment, that what is clearly unpalatable will be palatable if only I tried harder. The result, more often than not, is I end up making decisions I regret even as I am making them. I agree to do things I know I will hate even as I agree; and I accept things every rational part of my brain is screaming I should be treating with the same suspicion with which Prince Philip approaches the extended hand of an Australian aboriginal.
I have been a member of a book group for more than a year. Don’t ask me why I agreed to join the group (see the paragraph above). Essentially I could not say no when a friend of a friend invited me to join. To be honest I was also flattered—like when an unattractive teenager with spotty face and dandruff on his collar is asked out by the attractive girl in the class with bouncy bust, he is secretly lusting after—when he said he and his book-mates would be very honoured if someone like me who was such a voracious reader joined the group. I got a bit carried away. I thought that in these monthly gatherings to discuss literary fiction I—the voracious reader—would dazzle the other members with my searing comments, mordant wit and incisive insights.
A year down the line, I am regretting the decision. It was a mistake. It was never going to work. When a group comprises more than half a dozen individuals, it is impossible that they will have the same taste in reading. Now, you might say that that’s a good thing. People, in such groups, will suggest different genres, and you’d read books you’d otherwise not have read.
That is exactly my problem. I have been reading books in the past one year I’d have not read otherwise, and, reading them has confirmed to me that I was right in avoiding them all these years. I do not buy this argument that it is good once in a while to read books that won’t be on your usual reading list. Taste in reading is a bit like taste in wine. If you don’t have the taste for it, no amount of trying is going to make you like the vinegar that is passed for a wine in California.
Then there are the members of the book-groups.
One of the group members relishes in describing himself as a “working class boy from East End of London”. I don’t know what he does for living (he works for some charity, I think), but he gives autumn parties, books tickets for the first day of the Ashes tests, drinks white chateauneuf du pape, and is a member of a frigging book club. But he refuses to consider himself even an honorary member of the middle classes. The man does not strike me as mentally privileged and his command over English is shaky at best. Probably for these reasons he claims to hate middle brow fiction. Which basically is any novel that is literary and does not have gruesome murders in it. Sometime ago we discussed The Good Soldier. The man read the first ten pages of the novel and apparently lost the will to live. He could not carry on. It’s a matter of regret that he did not kill himself. That’s what he does with any novel that challenges his attention span, and announces in the meetings that the novel was full of “middle class nonsense” and he simply could not read such tosh. He gets on my nerves. He is forever suggesting novels of writers like Carl Hiaasen and George Pelecanos. A couple of months ago, probably just to have a break from his moaning, the group agreed to read a George Pelecanos novel called The Cut. Words fail me to describe how awful the novel was. It really had no redeeming features. It was an easy read, but, since I am not a fast reader, I still wasted four days finishing it. When the group met, it turned out that the majority had not liked it. A few members laid into the novel, and I actually found myself arguing that the novel was not as bad as that; that it had some witty dialogues; and that there was a semi-believable depiction of the soft underbelly of Washington D.C., the city in which apparently majority of Pelecanos’s novels are set.
This brings me to my second problem. In the past one year I have not managed to dazzle the group with my searing observations and mordant wit. Indeed I have not managed to say much at all in the meetings. There are a few reasons for this. It seems to me that for some group members the ability to listen to others is about as useful, in this day and age, as the ability to make fire with twigs. It is not necessary; they can do without it. As soon as the discussion opens these guys launch into their monologues as if a yearlong curfew on speaking has just been lifted for a few hours. They are fluent, I will grant them that. (Do they rehearse in front of the mirror what they are going to say in the meeting?) Some of them have done creative writing courses and, even though they have not got round to publish even a short story, they use lots of technical words with the relish of a gynaecologist explaining hysterectomy procedure to his patient. It is not that they don’t have a point. Unlike the “working class boy from East End of London” some of these guys have an interest in reading. (The “working class boy”, I suspect, comes mainly to eat, and also because he has probably heard that sophisticated, cultured people join book groups, although he would soon shoot himself between the eyes than accept that he wants to be cultured and sophisticated.) But they talk too much, probably working on the principle that it is a sin to be precise and concise when you can waste five times the required number of words. They are tireless and tiresome. As they drone on I try to keep myself awake, as I poke about my pepperoni pizza, by thinking imaginative questions such as why only fingernails continue to grow while the rest of the body stops, and whether the plump waitress sashaying seductively between tables (although for all that sashaying not great in the tits department) and wearing improbably tight trousers would burst an artery in her pelvis. On the rare occasion when I manage to get a word in edgeways, I, to my disgust, find myself saying mealy mouthed wishy-washy things which are vaguely complimentary. Even when I have not liked the novel (which has been the case 75% of the time so far) I avoid criticising it harshly. Why do I do it? Probably for the same reason I do not make a fuss when the waiters are rude in restaurants, or when a young mother demands to get ahead of me in the queue at the till because her child is cranky, or why I don’t ask the old biddy, who happens to sit next to me on the bus and who attaches great importance to telling you her entire life history, to shut up. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I want to be nice.
If I were a man of metal, if I had the personality strength of an iron skillet, if I were not obsessed about offering the world my unwavering amiability and appearing relentlessly reasonable, I would tell the other group members that I was sorry to be the bearer of a bad news but it would be grossly irresponsible to suggest anything different; that the book group meetings were so dire that I would rather have my teeth slowly extracted (without local anaesthesia) by a chatty dentist who has had lots of onions for lunch than spending an evening in a restaurant the white tiles of which put you in the mind of a urinal, in the company of people in comparison with whom parish meetings of Dagenham city council were like a gallon of coffee.
We are going to discuss The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry next month.