The Book Group was launched in October 2020 as a way to bring English students and staff together online during the lockdown necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Each week, one person talks about and reads from a book they cherish or wish to share, for whatever reason. It might be because the book is a favourite, because it has special meaning, because it deserves to be more widely known, or simply because it’s a good read. Any book is permissible, from to Finnegans Wake to Winnie-the-Pooh. Titles so far have included Felice Benuzzi’s mountaineering memoir No Picnic on Mount Kenya (1952), Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018) and Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman (2018). The weekly get-togethers are a great way to widen your knowledge of literature; so far we haven’t featured a book that everyone knows. There’s also enormous pleasure to be found in the readings. It’s wonderful to see people enraptured by the magic of words.
The silence that prevails as participants listen attentively to the presenter is contrasted with the lively chat that explodes after the reading and talk. Some people ask questions about the book, others type comments in the chat box. The discussion quickly sparks off in multiple directions, often away from the text, which is fine since this is a social event, not a seminar. It’s rather like being at a party with different conversations going on at once as people tuck into snacks (Dr Sarah Graham: crisps; Dr Mary Ann Lund: chocolate).
Although everyone who attends Book Group is serious about books, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. The presenter biographies reflect the informal, playful mood of the group: ‘I have spent lockdown in amateur kayaking and unintentional guinea pig breeding’; ‘my Myer Briggs personality type is ENTJ, which puts me in the company of Gordon Ramsay, Margaret Thatcher and Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada)’; ‘when I am not studying, I am busy fighting crime on the streets of Leicester.’
As the bios attest, Book Group not only affords an opportunity to learn more about books but also about each other. It’s the only event in the School that brings together tutors, undergraduates from all three years, and MA and PhD students. There’s also a special guest student from Medicine. When her email address was accidentally added to the distribution list, she – being a book lover – decided to come along and has returned every week, testament to the power and pleasure of literature as well as the friendliness of people in English.
The joy of Book Group stems as much from the group as the books. There’s a sense of community and belonging. ‘I look forward to this every week’, wrote one student. ‘This is the highlight of my week!’, declared another.
If you would like to share a book you love, get in touch. Or just come along – Book Group is currently held on Fridays, 4-5pm.
Dr Emma Parker