Terence Blacker: Looking for love? Pick up a book

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The Independent Online

Men in the habit of behaving badly - irresponsible or adventurous, depending on your point of view - claim there are certain useful ways of attracting female attention. One is to wander the aisles of supermarket with the almost-empty trolley of a sad singleton (a chicken pie, a packet of frozen peas, some roll-your-own tobacco), occasionally asking where the extra virgin olive oil is to be found. Another is to sit alone in quiet contemplation in front of a picture at an art gallery.

A handy accessory on these occasions is a book, preferably by an author who is neither too obscure nor too popular - Paul Auster, say, or Mary Gaitskell, Geoff Dyer or Richard Dawkins. It is helpful if the volume in question is hard-covered, the assumption being that no pervert or maniac would ever read a hardback, and that the worst risk a woman runs is that the reader might turn out to be a bore.

It is no great revelation that a book is not always about reading; it can be a small but effective advertisement for the person who is carrying it. The snobbery that is an essential part of the literary world infects the wider world through its product. Articles and websites offering advice on "how to build a library" are less concerned with the reader's inner life than creating for them the right parade of books to impress visitors.

Until recently, few have dared to suggest that the hallowed contemporary institution, the book club, is part of the same general pattern. There has been a television sitcom about these meeting groups, and the American writer Jane Hamilton, in her novel Disobedience, joked that they exist largely to give women the chance to complain about men. But now Virginia Ironside has put the case directly in her celebration of life over 60, No! I Don't Want to Join a Book Club. "The idea of sitting about with a group of other ladies of uncertain ages, droning on about contemporary novelists, fills me with horror," she says.

Quite right, too. Book club devotees like to believe that their activity is about communicating enthusiasm about a favourite book to others, but analysis and discussion rarely have the same effect as a simple, straightforward recommendation. When a book is laid on a slab and eviscerated, its inner workings probed and mulled over by earnest amateurs, the life soon ebbs from it. There must have been many people who, while championing some novel over a glass of warm wine, have felt their own passion for it dwindling as it is talked to death.

From the titles that are selected to the clash of egos which marks literary discussion on these occasions, book clubs tend to be dominated by a hard-eyed snobbery and competitiveness that somehow discourages reading, replacing it with pretentious literary talk. Just as addicts of creative writing courses can soon write only when they know they will be able to discuss their work with others, so reading books has also become a social activity. As a result, the private and personal pleasure which a book can provide is lost.

It is possible, of course, that most of these clubs are a covert dating service for the second-time-around crowd, in which case they are performing a useful enough service. Even so, it is perhaps time for them to leave the innocent activity of reading alone and admit that they exists primarily to give people the chance to sit around, discuss things and occasionally flirt. Conversation clubs could have a future.

Yet another chapter in this sad tale

Was it because Sylvia Plath hurt her feelings by asking her to peel potatoes, or the kiss that Ted Hughes gave her while she was washing up? A biography of a woman called Assia Wevill has prompted an urgent debate over why she had an affair with Hughes, which contributed to Plath's suicide and later to her own, with the simultaneous murder of her daughter.

A friend of the dead women, Fay Weldon, has said she had not wished to take sides until now because she "didn't want to engage on the level of literary gossip". Another view might be that it is difficult to see why this luckless woman, who had no other claim to fame, deserves to have her sad life pored over in order to make another contribution to the great Hughes-Plath industry.

* The polar ice-caps are melting, species are becoming extinct at an increasing rate, there is a need for guidance on environmental matters as never before, and where does that august campaigning organisation the Worldwide Fund for Nature direct our attention?

It has revealed that tiny elements of harmful chemicals are present in brown bread and milk. With admirable restraint, a toxicologist from Imperial College London has commented, "I don't believe that at these levels they represent a significant threat to human health."

Because we live in an age of fear, the WWF will doubtless get the publicity it craves, just as it did with another of its recent revelations, the news that caged birds might be poisoned by fumes caused by fry-ups in non-stick frying-pans. But, with every silly-season story about chemicals in bread or gasping budgies, public concern and interest in more important environmental matters is polluted.

terblacker@aol.com

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