The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Reading Group, Patrick Sauer

Alpha, 2000, 359 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-02-863654-6

Even though I’ve been avidly lurking in bookstores for most of my adult life, I still consistently manage to be delighted at some of the oddball books I can find. A trip through the cookbook section will reveal untapped areas of taste (and ever-narrower demographic segments) I never suspected. The self-help section will reveal serious widespread emotional problems I hadn’t even imagined. The biography section will make me discover hitherto-unknown famous persons. There’s always something new and interesting in bookstores. If ever I win the lottery, keep the million dollars; I want an unlimited expense account at Chapters.

Can you say “bilbiofreak”? I knew you could.

In many ways, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Reading Group is a book that I couldn’t resist. No, I have no intention of starting (or even joining) a reading group, but the very idea that such a book deserved to exist was simply too delicious to pass up. Plus, hey, it was heavily discounted.

The first chapter of this Idiot’s Guide quickly establishes that the book has been written in an alternate universe. (“Does it seem that every time you turn around lately, another friend or acquaintance has joined a reading group? Everyone seems to be in on it.” [P.1]) This isn’t necessarily a bad thing -even though I’d like to emigrate there- given that Sauer seems to be writing in terms of “the ideal reading group” rather than our own humdrum lives. Is the CIGSRG escapist literature? Maybe.

It certainly sounds so when you start reading some of Sauer’s recommended titles for reading. All the classics are there, and then some. He doesn’t recommend very many books published in the past twenty years, though. As pointed out in Chapter 10, gender balance isn’t something you’ll find in reading groups, which tend to skew heavily towards women for a variety of reasons. The net effect, for a Techno/SF genre geek like me is a selection of recommended books that I find respectable, if utterly boring. Sauer even muddles in my genres of predilection in Chapter 16 (The title of the chapter being, I kid you not, “Oh, the Horror… the Horror”) and the selection in my well-known SF arena is rather dry and stuffy; I count only one novel (out of 19) from the nineties, and that’s Michael Crichton’s 1990 Jurassic Park. The rest is remarkably er… unexciting.

In producing a respectable book for everyone, Sauer might be a touch too conservative. While I can’t expect him to recommend Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club to everyone (I would, but then again that’s just me), his overall choices tend to promote elusive canon-quality rather than enjoyment, which would seem to be a crucial element in a book club for non-readers. On the other hand, it’s hard to read the CIGSRG without wanting to run to the library to borrow books yet unread. Plus, who can reasonably argue against reading the classics?

Sauer definitely fares better when detailing the mechanics of starting a book club. How to recruit members, how to organize meetings, how to deal with difficult members and situations are all covered in witty detail. Heck, the chapter on why to join a book club alone (“Chapter 1: To Read of not to Read?”) reaffirmed my own bibliomaniac tendencies. I’m not so sure about his main sales pitch (“Reading Groups: Singles Bars for the Next Century”), especially given the shocking lack of social tips about intra-group dating!

Well, never mind that. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Starting a Reading Group is definitely a curious book, with many uses and purposes besides the titular activity. As a reading recommendation list, it’s not everything for everyone, but it should help broaden most literary horizons. It’s mostly a book for book-lovers. You know who you are.

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