The last time I met my mother for lunch, she was worrying about Scott Fitzgerald. Her reading group was looming and it was her turn to lead it. She had picked The Great Gatsby because it was short. She read the preface to two editions, did a search on Google, and sat down to watch the video. My mother is nothing if not conscientious. When I tell her about my reading for work, she can always match it with deadlines of her own.
Luckily, it was for the smaller of her two reading groups, the one that meets at Mrs Johnson's house, where the tea is served in china cups. It has about a dozen members - nine women and three men - and meets once a month. The other group, which meets fortnightly, takes place in a village hall. It has about 25 members, all older Guildford ladies, who sit in the same seats every time. The tea, my mother confides with a tinge of disappointment, is served from an urn into polystyrene cups. Instructions for participation, and homework, are clear. "We laugh a lot, and we really miss it when we don't have it," she tells me, sensing a sneer and eager to crush it. "They are," she adds firmly, "highlights of my life."
According to recent estimates, there are about 50,000 reading groups in this country. My mother's, which both sprang out of the University of the Third Age six or seven years ago, are almost parodically typical, but they are certainly not the only model. What started as a largely homogeneous (female, older, middle-class) phenomenon, has swept through the country like a virus, infecting women, and some men, across age ranges and demographics. There are now reading groups in bookshops, libraries, hospitals, offices and prisons, as well as in people's homes.
My mother's "tea in china cups" wouldn't pass muster in most of the reading groups I encountered. "It has opened up a whole range of new recipes," says Lisa Roberts, a marketing manager and member of a reading group that takes it in turn to host and cook. "I'm not a very confident cook, but my bangers and mash went down well, and so did my vegetarian stew. The gingerbread men," she adds, wistfully, "weren't quite so successful." Roberts was reading Pride and Prejudice when she went into labour. Two and a half weeks later, the group came round to discuss it. Baby Ruby slept peacefully while the others heated up the quiche.
Helen Chaloner, a charity fundraiser from Devon, has been in a reading group in her village, Drewsteignton, for about four years. "We're a small community in which everyone knows each other," she says, "and we meet once a month at different people's houses. We all like seeing each other's homes, and we always have food and drink. People make quiches and we have lots of crisps and peanuts and cakes. It's mostly women," she adds, "but when we did Master and Commander, we did get a few more men."
They may be a rarity, but there are men's reading groups, too. Robert Jackson, a teacher, says that his group started out of envy. "Our wives were pretty much all in book groups, and they were clearly having such a good time. So we started our own and we love it. We do talk about football, but the book comes first. We never discuss our marriages, our jobs or any aspect of our personal lives. Every Christmas, we have a get-together at a local restaurant where we vote on the books we've read over the previous 12 months. That," he tells me with a rueful smile, "is very male, isn't it?"
While some groups are clearly a slender excuse for a tasty snack, a natter and a nice bottle of chardonnay, others take their reading very seriously indeed. "We're all prolific readers anyway," says Jo Minogue, a management consultant, "so we decided it would be a good idea to read literature from around the world. It's been absolutely fascinating, but it can be a bit harrowing. We did Israel for a while, and lots of books about the Holocaust, and then we moved on to Bosnia. But," she adds more cheerfully, "we're doing Iceland now and we're thinking of going on a trip to Reykjavik."
In addition to the catering arrangements, what all the people I talked to mentioned was the particular pleasure of reading, and discussing, books that they might not otherwise have encountered. "We've read Dickens and Dostoevsky, for example, but also writers such as Philip Roth" says Jessica York, a café manager. "My all-time low," she adds with a grimace, "was Anita Shreve". Like many reading-group aficionados, she believes that an eclectic social mix is part of the attraction. The focus on reading brings a different kind of dynamic, and one that people clearly find addictive. It doesn't, however, always work. "One woman was introduced who just didn't seem to fit in," says York. "She was too pedagogic. You have to be very light and very receptive to make it work."
Where individuals have paved the way, the mass media have followed. First there was Oprah's Book Club. Then the BBC bombarded us with The Big Read, and now there's Richard and Judy. Sales of books selected for all of these have shot into a stratosphere of which most authors can only dream.
Publishers, too, are putting money into resources for reading groups, hoping to get in on the action. For Jenny Hartley, author of a study on reading groups, much of this misses the point. "Programme-makers, publishers and so on have seen the energy and interest generated by reading groups," she says, "but reading groups are an independent lot." Rachel Alexander, publicity director at Faber and Faber, agrees. "It has been massively positive for publishers in terms of sales," she admits, "but it's actually about word of mouth. Reading groups create a social context for reading, but it remains an intimate experience and one that publishers can't necessarily emulate."
Chris Meade, director of Booktrust, has been involved in a number of initiatives to promote reading, including an online guide for reading groups in association with The Big Read. He has been in a men's group, which he loves, for five years, but admits that the experience isn't always positive: "There are people who don't like talking about what they've read. It's a private, personal thing, and sometimes you've chosen a book and had it demolished. My mum," he adds with a smile, "is in a group that can get really academic." So, I tell him, is mine.
THE TOP 10 BOOK GROUP TITLES
'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' by Louis de Bernières
'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks
'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold
'The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' by Alexander McCall Smith
'The Poisonwood Bible' by Barbara Kingsolver
'Miss Garnett's Angel' by Salley Vickers
'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith
'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel
'Perfume' by Patrick Suskind
'Atonement' by Ian McEwan