Helen Martin: I’m too common to talk a book to death

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ACCORDING to the wonderfully-titled Middle Class Handbook website, it is necessary for any woman who wants to earn her upwardly mobile stripes to be a member of a book club. Apparently it’s “an essential marker of social status”.

There is only one person in the world I know who is a member of a regular book club, and that’s my sister (although she calls it a “literary group”).

I assume, with some confidence, that she can’t really be the only one. She can’t be sitting there on her own, arguing with herself. Indeed, she tells me about the other members and the books they read . . . while I sit politely nodding and making supportive noises when required. But I’ve never met them and really, I don’t get it.

It’s one of many differences between us, but a core difference that exhibits itself in all sorts of ways. She’s a “club” person and I’m not.

I like books. I like reading them. I just don’t care what anyone else thinks about them. I have no inclination to argue with other people about what the author was “trying to say” or why he wrote the book in the first place. I don’t want to know if I’m right or wrong in my interpretations. I like it, or I don’t.

Clearly I don’t qualify as middle class. Indeed, until the website grabbed headlines by championing the protocol and guidelines for running book clubs, I had no idea they had such a fundamental role in establishing a woman’s socio-economic identity.

My sister also has a holiday house in St Andrews, so it wouldn’t be surprising to find her at a two-day event the university is hosting gathering international literati to dissect, examine and conduct minute analysis of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

If you ask working-class me, the one way to ruin a good book, kill the drama and remove the magic – even from Harry Potter – is to over-analyse it.

I do recall being forced into it for Higher English in 1970. Teachers and examiners seemed to feel supremely confident that they knew exactly what complexities of motivation were going through William Shakespeare’s mind at the very moment when he was scratching out Macbeth with his quill. My suggestion that he was probably thinking “What a right little earner I have here . . . I just need a bit more blood to pull the punters in,” didn’t go down well (though I was cute enough not to write that in the exam).

Asking my teacher, by way of revenge, to explain the mental processes of Stevie Smith, a maverick poet who died in 1971 and who we were also studying at the time, wasn’t a winner either. One of her famous works comprised four lines. “Aloft, In the loft, Sits Croft, He is soft.”

Go analyse that. Perhaps it could keep the St Andrews academics going for a week but it certainly put my English teacher’s gas at a peep.

It’s hardly surprising that while the academic drive to deconstruct and discuss literature ad nauseam is unisex, the middle-class amateur book club is almost invariably an all female affair. Women do like to talk and analyse so that much I can understand, even if it does strip away the pleasure of reading.

It’s the club rules I can’t cope with, a throw-back to Brownies or the Upper Fourth. You must read a certain book each month and be prepared to discuss it with the group over tea and buns. My school days are long gone. I’ll decide what I want to read and when, and however I have created the “screenplay” in my head, is the way I want it to stay in my memory. . . . at least until they bring out the movie.

So I’ll avoid the findings of the St Andrews conference, billed as “an intense series of almost 50 lectures examining the JK Rowling books as literary texts” looking at death, the role of empathy and the influence of CS Lewis and Tolkien; paganism, magic, the use of food and British national identity.

So much for losing yourself in the Hogwarts fantasy.

Who’d have us?

THE political scrapping and squabbling over the wording of the independence referendum seems destined to go on until the moment – whenever that is – the votes are in.

Having not yet arrived at a firm conclusion myself, I have neither the desire nor the ability to sway anyone else. But I am curious about one thing.

If we really are bank-rolled by Westminster; if we really are getting more than our fair share of government grants at the English people’s expense; if it is going to be so impossible for us to survive on our own economically; and if we really are such a small, inconsequential country that we can’t go it alone and will have egg on our saltire-painted faces . . . why are Westminster and the Unionist parties so determined to hang on to us?