Book Group: You shall know our opinion

Christina Patterson reveals your views on the first selection for our book group
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The Independent Culture

Launching an online book group is a bit like sending a message in a bottle. You hope that someone will find it and that wonderful things will ensue, but it could just float there, bobbing gently on the waves of cyberspace, unseen and unread. Perhaps everyone in the whole world was already a member of a book group? Perhaps online discussion groups were only for the deeply lonely and the deeply weird: the kinds of people who use The Independent's news forum to reveal God's plans for humanity or to offer death threats to Robert Fisk.

Launching an online book group is a bit like sending a message in a bottle. You hope that someone will find it and that wonderful things will ensue, but it could just float there, bobbing gently on the waves of cyberspace, unseen and unread. Perhaps everyone in the whole world was already a member of a book group? Perhaps online discussion groups were only for the deeply lonely and the deeply weird: the kinds of people who use The Independent's news forum to reveal God's plans for humanity or to offer death threats to Robert Fisk.

In case of disaster, or silence, I handed around copies of You Shall Know Our Velocity to colleagues, with the firm instruction to read, think and be on standby. If things were sluggish, they could offer chirpy snippets of critique pour encourager les autres. If they were desperate, they might have to be " les autres" and I'd have to offer a survey of opinion culled from The Independent's canteen. Luckily, they were neither. "I think this is a great idea for people who don't get the chance to attend or join conventional Book Groups," said Enoeht1 kindly, in response to our first posting. "I'm looking forward to giving it a go." Mark Brigly, an IT project manager from Cornwall, was equally enthusiastic: "This form is ideal for me; I travel to Europe each week for work and have the time to read but often lack the motivation. I have long waited to attend a book club but don't get the chance". So far, so sane.

Initial contributions tended towards the practical. FireyJack ordered his copy from the local library. Shirley "from the sunny south coast" hoped to collect her copy from the bookshop tomorrow. Bookishish and The Mane Man both picked up copies from WH Smith. Colin Piper was heading into Brighton Borders tomorrow. Perhaps he would see Shirley? In "a quick note to the organisers," he asked us, please, to pick "relatively short books". "I couldn't possibly," he said, reasonably, "read War and Peace or Ulysses in a month". Point taken, Mr Piper.

Early responses to the book were a little tentative. Shirley thought it looked "different", Melmoth2004 confessed to being "just a tad disappointed" by our first choice of book. He was, he says, one of the minority who thought that Eggers's first book "might have been better entitled 'A Mindnumbing Work of Staggering Tedium' ". Cathy Boyle, a market-research analyst, was actually told by the librarian (a real librarian, not, as the book so wonderfully describes, a librarian in the head) that the book "wouldn't be any good. Her reasons?" she added drily. "The fact that the book actually begins on the front cover of the hardback and continues from there, leaving no blank space for the library card at the front of the book."

And then people started to read it. Michael Murphy, a dotcom consultant from north London, set the ball rolling with a series of questions. Were the images necessary? How relevant is the theme of jumping to the story? He would, he tells Colin Piper, be starting War and Peace at the beginning of May, with "mini breaks" for other books. Why didn't we all do this? For many of us, the Dave Eggers was quite enough to be going on with, though "war and peace" might do as a name for the book group itself. Shirley was "unimpressed" after 30 pages, but vowed to "struggle on". The Mane Man was even more direct: "Having just read the first few pages," he declared, "it has kinda peed me off." Stephen McEwan from Oxted pronounced the book "a load of pretentious rubbish". Olwenp said the book made her feel "sad and old". Maybe, she added, with admirable candour, "that's because I am".

Oh dear. What had been planted in the hope of pleasure was clearly turning into torture on a grand scale. But there was light at the end of the tunnel. Sam2000and4 announced that he was someone who "happily abandons a book", but had finished this one. Adam Wood, a student at Reading, said he would reserve full judgement until later, but was "enjoying it". Michael from Manchester said that it was much better than he expected. "Will and Hand's journey" he says, "is moving and funny, and manages to work on various levels". Angie Legge, a nurse, was even more unequivocally positive: "Wow, what a book!"

As the debate progressed, so did the length, and quality, of the contributions. dreamworl2 found the book "irritating and moving in roughly equal measure". jakers52 loved "the portrayal of young men in their confusion" and "laughed a lot". And Adam Wood finally delivered his verdict, in an elegant review that would not look at all out of place on these pages. The 78th response to the book was by bookseller Jane Gadsby, who had just joined the forum and read the whole lot. "This is where book groups succeed," she said, "because the discussion makes you realise aspects of the book that you either hadn't picked up on or you simply didn't understand."

Thank you, Jane and Adam and Michael and Shirley and everyone who has contributed to an increasingly riveting discussion. There have been no death threats yet, no signs of God's wrath or even indications of his literary taste. Perhaps that's for next month.

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