Search for top reading group dispels a few myths

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The Independent Culture

But any suggestion that they are a recent phenomenon was disproved yesterday when two groups that have met for 30 years or more were shortlisted for the fourth Penguin/Orange Reading Group Prize, organised in association with Ottakar's bookstores.

The Congleton NWR (National Women's Register) Book Group in Cheshire has read more than 300 books since it was founded 31 years ago while the Crosby Reading Group in Liverpool began as an off-shoot of the National Housewives Register, a discussion forum, and has met for 30 years.

Both are all-female. Yet the other contenders on the shortlist for the top prize of a visit to the Edinburgh Book Festival next month also disprove the popular conception of book clubs as a women-only affair.

An all-male prisoner reading group at High Down prison in Surrey has been shortlisted for the prize after one group member described it as "a breath of fresh air; a monthly release when close to despair".

Were they to win, however, they would not be allowed out to Scotland but an alternative prize - probably a visit from an author - would be arranged.

And two of the other contenders are mixed-sex groups. The Black Reading Group in Walsall was set up five years ago at the central library by a librarian, Sonia Dixon, as part of Black History Month celebrations. It now has 45 members of different ethnic backgrounds with an age span of nine to 70 and focuses on reading black history and black authors. Ms Dixon said: "We do read other books but specifically we read black authors because black authors aren't widely known in our society." It has just completed Purple Hibiscus, the Orange Prize-shortlisted first novel by the young Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is also thought to be the first book club in the country to produce its own book, a collection of prose and poetry from its members. The fifth shortlisted group is the Red Deer Readers in Sheffield, another mixed-sex group who have been meeting for eight years and has produced its own website for other reading groups to use.

However, the final group is all-female, the Isle of Islay Book Group in the Hebrides whose members write a regular book review column for their local newspaper and read contemporary Scottish literature.

Professor Jenny Hartley, who has researched reading groups and was one of the judges, said: "This year's shortlist overturns the popular preconception that reading groups are a relatively recent phenomenon dominated by women.

"The shortlist is remarkable for its diversity. From inner city to inner Hebrides - and inside prison too - this year's shortlist is a great showcase for what reading groups do best: outward-looking, socially inclusive, the small scale with the wide focus."

The winning group will be announced next month and the winners will attend a celebrity panel event and meet an author at the Edinburgh Book Festival. The second prize is £200 worth of books donated by Penguin.

The prize was set up by Orange, alongside the annual prize for women's fiction.

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