Britons go down the pub - for a good read

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The Independent Online
BRITONS are getting stuck into books like never before. The Government may be concerned that a quarter of adults suffer from very poor literacy - last week it launched the National Year of Reading to promote the consumption of novels - but it appears that the rest of us need little encouragement to keep turning the pages.

And we are doing it in company. Reading has become an excuse for a party, a reason for socialising and the newest way of extending your range of acquaintances.

Reading groups - or book clubs - are thriving across the country, some long established, others encouraged by the recent buzz of promotion.

In Boston, Lincolnshire, even the local pub, the Britannia Inn, is about to launch a bar reading club where people can drop in and discuss the finer points of modern fiction over a pint of Bateman's bitter. Tim Rawlinson, the landlord, sees it as a natural progression for the traditional community meeting place.

He has been encouraged by Anne Dorrian, community literacy co-ordinator at Lincolnshire county council. "Our reading lists are all modern paperbacks that have recently been made into films, so they are easily recognisable," she said.

In Kirklees, Yorkshire, James Nash and Rommi Smith are the lottery-funded readers in residence given the task of starting up readers' groups across their constituency.

"What we're trying to do is say there are things you can gain by joining a readers' group and taking risks with other types of books than what you usually read," said Mr Nash.

At least 200 new reading groups started this year, encouraged by the Book Trust, an educational charity, and funding from the Orange mobile phone company.

Brian Perman, the Book Trust's executive director, had observed the book club phenomenon in America and wanted to encourage it here. In the US, Oprah Winfrey discusses a book a month on her chat show and sales are transformed by her recommendation.

The trust and Orange compiled an information pack and received nearly 2,500 requests for a copy. More than 350 people registered their groups with the trust, including 202 new ones inspired by the publicity.

The trust stresses there are no rules on how to organise your own group, although it provides this advice from the actress Dawn French, who founded one with Jennifer Saunders five years ago: "A book club like ours gives us the opportunity to meet up with our friends, to wake our brains up a bit with lively and often quite aggressive discussion about the book, and it nearly always disintegrates deliciously into malicious gossip. And, of course, it is mandatory to get dead drunk."

BBC Radio 4, too, has had an enthusiastic response to its monthly Book Club, where listeners are encouraged to read a book, which is then discussed by a panel including the author.

The programme's producer, Jeanette Thomas, said listeners had proved so keen to participate that the dialogue continues afterwards on e-mail.

"Huge numbers of books are bought because people trust their friends' recommendations," she said. "I think that is what is happening with these reading groups. They are an opportunity to talk about books and broaden your reading in a way that you trust."

But most reading group members agree that books are only part of the fun. Author Kathy Lette - whose new novel, Altar Ego, is due out in November - belongs to an all-female group in Britain and another in her native Australia.

"Our husbands think we're being very highbrow, but it's really just an excuse to strip to our emotional underwear," she said. "We use the book as a springboard. It's cathartic and much cheaper than an analyst."