This year’s list for the “leading prize for quality fiction in English” includes three debut novelists, as well as previously shortlisted and winning authors. Being shortlisted can lead to a dramatic increase in sales. The winner, announced in October, can also look forward to a £50,000 prize as well as joining a canon which includes Iris Murdoch, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood.
Awards such as the Man Booker can offer a shortcut to the classics of the future, readily assigned by a panel of people regarded as experts in the field. And for some readers, choosing books from an official selection like the Man Booker shortlist makes it easier to know that what they are reading is deemed “acceptable” by the literary elite.
This is not to say that’s the only reason people enjoy poring over such shortlists. But let’s not pretend that what other people think of what we read isn’t important to many of us. For some, this could even mean going so far as to disguise a guilty pleasure by reading it on an e-reader – making it impossible to judge a book (or the reader) by its cover.
Despite reading often being seen as something people do in a room of one’s own, in recent years there has been a big rise in the number of book groups and reading clubs, emphasising the social experience reading can bring.
The success of what researchers have called “mass reading events”, like those led by Oprah Winfrey or Richard and Judy, are testament to the power not only of recommendations from people whose opinions we value, but also of feeling that we’re reading the same things as lots of others.
Book groups have long fulfilled this social function of reading for their many members. Over a cup of tea or glass of wine, people share their thoughts about a book they have read (or at least intend to read), debate its merits and its flaws, and collectively explore what it means to them.
More recently, the proliferation of online book groups has also allowed space for readers to interact over their reading from further afield, often focused on specific genres, or with choices influenced or curated by celebrities or vloggers.
Through my own experience of being part of a community reading group, I have also seen how the act of reading itself is something that brings people together.
Shared reading groups have grown in popularity across the country in recent years. They have been an integral part of the work of the Liverpool based charity, The Reader, which promotes the benefits of reading across different communities. In a range of venues including libraries, health centres, schools, and care homes, members of a shared reading group join together to listen to a story or a poem being read aloud, reading along with a copy of the text if they want to. Members join groups for lots of different reasons – not least because of the impact reading can have on well-being.
Not only do the members of a shared reading group physically meet to listen to the reading, but they also come together through talking about the story or the poem, listening and responding to each other’s interpretations, and working collaboratively to explore what it means to them.
These types of shared experiences are a powerful reminder that the meanings we make from a text are different every time it is read. In this way, reading groups bring people together in the active sharing of interpretation.
Those shared readings which are made in the moment sit alongside the “expert” readings of critics and judges as part of the richness of what literature represents to different people. And no doubt as the nights draw in, armed with a new shortlist of titles to get stuck into, reading groups up and down the country will be coming together to read and to work at making meanings of their own.
Susan Jones does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.