The really big read...

Meeting to discuss literature is a major social activity. Now our readers can join in. David Lister and Christina Patterson introduce The Independent Book Group
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The Independent Culture

Today we launch The Independent Book Group. Across the country, book groups have become an unmissable part of the monthly calendar. Part cultural, part social, debate about shared reading has cemented and sometimes broken friendships. Book groups have also, as we report below, created bestsellers.

Now you can share your reading matter and your thoughts about it with fellow readers of The Independent. Each month we will suggest a book for you to read and ask you to give us your thoughts on it at our interactive forum. There you will find the views of other Independent readers and be able to debate with them.

On the first Friday of each month, from May onward, we will publish highlights of that debate in the Arts & Books Review. An Independent writer will give their opinion of the nominated book. And we will also nominate the next book to be read.

Our literary editor, Boyd Tonkin, introduces the first book, the debut novel by Dave Eggers. Send us your thoughts on it when you have read it. We will publish a selection of responses in the Arts & Books Review on Friday 7 May, along with the thoughts of The Independent's Deborah Ross.

In "Dostoevsky with your quiche?' Christina Patterson, deputy literary editor, looks at the phenomenon of the book group. Now there is a new addition to it - the newspaper book group. We look forward to hearing from you.

And there is little doubt that book groups have had a significant effect on both the publishing industry and our bedside reading matter.

When Louis de Bernières published his novel of love and opera in wartime Cephalonia, he could not have guessed how many people would read it. Ten years on, sales of Captain Corelli's Mandolin have topped two and a half million. Reviews on publication were respectable, but not spectacular and there was no major marketing spend. What happened?

What happened, of course, was that phenomenon known as "word of mouth", a phenomenon that's closely associated with the rise of the reading group. If publishers could buy or bottle it, they would. Instead, they can only ride the crest of a wave that started at (largely middle-class) grass roots. They can churn out guides for reading groups, offer tasters and try to woo them, but they can't tame them, count them or predict what they will like. Shut away from the coffee, cakes and chat in people's sitting rooms, they also can't categorise. There's no reliable data on reading-group bestsellers, only a range of educated guesses. Where sales have plateau-ed and then gone steadily up, it's a safe guess that this is a book that has won minds, hearts and animated discussion over bottles of chardonnay.

One survey of 300 reading groups found that the top five books were as follows: Captain Corelli's Mandolin (of course), Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Ian McEwan's Enduring Love and Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain. War features heavily in the list and is, says Jenny Hartley, who did the survey, "a big theme in reading groups. A reading-group book," she adds, "has to have issues that people can latch onto and talk about. People don't necessarily have to love the book, but they do want to feel that they had a good discussion on it."

For Jo Marino, the PR manager at Waterstone's, who is currently doing some work on "word-of-mouth" bestsellers, it's very simple. The key, she says, is "a good story told in an interesting way. If you truly love a book, then you want to pass it on. Whether it's your auntie or your friend, that's what really counts." She names Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and Patrick Suskind's Perfume as books that have, in the bookselling jargon, had a major reading-group "uplift".

Roger Bratchell, the marketing director for the CCV division of Random House, agrees that there is nothing to beat "a genuine recommendation that comes unadorned with all the paraphernalia". He thinks that this is part of the Richard and Judy phenomenon, which has sent sales of books like Joseph O'Connor's The Star of the Sea rocketing. In this context, the engagingly unstarry Richard and Judy are the friends who tell the viewers who tell their friends. Bratchell's tip for the next big reading-group bestseller is Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. "It's going to be enormous," he confides happily.

David Eggers' debut novel is also likely to become a staple of book groups. Born in 1970, Eggers grew up in Chicago, the son of a lawyer and a teacher. Both his parents died within a year when he was 21, leaving him to raise his younger brother "Toph". This experience of loss and DIY parenthood formed the basis of Eggers' memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). A sensational success, it redefined the genre of "confessional" literature and turned its author almost overnight into possibly the most-admired and emulated American author of his generation.

AHWOSG did not come out of nowhere. Eggers had moved to San Francisco where he created a satirical journal, Might, and then, relocating to Brooklyn to work for Esquire, founded McSweeney's magazine in 1998. McSweeney's rapidly emerged as a haven for young anti-Establishment voices in American fiction. You Shall Know Our Velocity, his first novel, came out to a noisy but mixed reception in 2003. This month, Penguin releases it in paperback.

Eggers is now at work on a book about a group of Sudanese child refugees, known as the "Lost Boys", who were re-settled in the US after a perilous journey across Africa. Meanwhile, the film of AHWOSG looks almost ready to roll. Nick Hornby (one of Eggers' transatlantic fan club, which also includes Zadie Smith) has been involved in developing the screenplay. The director will be Kimberly Pierce, who made Boys Don't Cry.