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In conversation with Feminist Book Club Glasgow

By Jackson Harvey

Stef McCartney of the Feminist Book Club Glasgow caught up with The Glasgow Guardian to discuss the importance of books, the club, and reading in print.

Feminist author Ursula K. Le Guin once said that “first sentences are doors to worlds” (I’m glad they did). The idea of a feminist book club started out as a friend of Stef’s uni project; a low-key raison d’etre that it was “a bit of a space away from the pub, as a social thing”. Pair this with the inconvenience of finding that most groups they wished to join were already full, the Feminist Book Club Glasgow (FBC) was formed. I was spooked by the notion that it might actually be the first of its kind. At least, excepting imprecisely comparative groups like the Glasgow Woman’s Library Book Club, or anomalous manifestations, as with the one-off Young Feminist Book Club in Govanhill. And that only came about last year.

The most pertinent information was exchanged at the outset. I asked whether Stef preferred Audiobook, e-reader, or print, and the answer resoundingly favoured the latter. “Always print; and I fold down pages and make notes in the margins and highlight lines and paragraphs, especially if it’s a book club book. It helps me remember things a little better […] and good passages to bring up to chat about together.”

Surrounded by the 1,000,000+ books at their work in the Mitchell Library, Stef McCartney is the unlikeliest of likely convenors. In conversation, she candidly divulged that she hadn’t attended a book club before, and that they wouldn’t be caught speeding through a book a week either. As a past student of literature, I found it especially refreshing to find out that, not only do the books read at the FBC provide greater cultural diversity than my undergrad ever did, but also that the book-club runner would sooner sit down to watch a movie. “I don’t have to put the same focus and energy into watching a film as I do reading. I can take a break in some ways; other people are putting in the work for a bit!”. This is where the book club comes in: a benevolent announcement to dig into that book you’ve been meaning to read, or to learn something new from the perspectives of peers. “The book club helps me, personally, with reading more now. There’s a bit of excitement to chat about one book with a lot of people.”

An additional ailment of academic trauma suspended my own excitement at such a notion. Prior to attending my first session at the FBC, I had this festering apprehension that I might say or do the wrong thing; or worse, have nothing enlightening to say at all. I dithered on this misguided assumption that I’d commit a faux pas and have to quote Roxane Gay to get myself out of it. Naturally, the way the book club is conducted immediately put to rest the insecurities of a social flutter-bye. “You know there are going to be other feelings about the book you look forward to hearing. You’re going to be able to chat to people who have a similar understanding, and outlook on life, as you. You can speak freely, and openly, and know that people around you are probably going to have had similar experiences. You are able to just sit and listen to other people whilst being in the group. There’s no pressure to talk. This all helps create trust. You don’t have time to draft a perfect text, or tweet, or caption. You know you’re going to hear, and say, exactly what people, and yourself, think; there and then. There’s comfort in sharing together; learning and unlearning together. There’s love in that. It makes me happy.”

As of last year, the male readership of the 10 highest selling female authors was a mere 19%. I can’t help but wonder whether this is merely a part of, or is in fact, a result of systemic gender inequality? Stef thinks it’s probably made up of a lot of things, some big and systemic, others more insidious. “A small (reason) is that they just can’t be arsed. Although maybe it’s actually quite a big thing. I’m probably going to make big, big sweeping statements here, but I don’t think men always see women’s thoughts and feelings as being relatable? They don’t care enough to find out about us. It’s lazy.”

Stef recalls trying to find books on death and sadness to help come to terms with the uncharted emotional terrain of losing their papa at age 10. In a study at the University of Liverpool, quantitative results indicate that not only does reading for pleasure increase empathy, and self-awareness, but also a greater engagement in addressing social issues. “I also think it can be quite scary for men to read books by women, as it holds up a mirror and highlights that they are part of the bigger systemic inequalities. It’s perhaps more about what will happen after reading women; where do you share thoughts about this book you’ve just read, and process, and unlearn behaviours, where you won’t be judged? (They could join the book club!) So, it’s easier to not pick up the book in the first place. You need to put some effort and work in if you want things to change and understand why they need to change. But gender inequality works in their favour. So why bother.”

It’s estimated that over half of all readers find solace in the act as a form of escapism. I’m going out on a limb in supposing that this half is proportionate to the split between fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps this is a factor in the FBC’s growth during lockdown. “I’m always very grateful that people took a chance to join yet another Zoom. We tried to make it as chatty and interactive as people were comfortable with. We’ve only just started meeting up again in person for our chats about the books, which is so nice.”

On what to expect, the book discussion tends to last for about an hour. “I don’t have set questions I need answered. We just meander through the evening’s chat with how we’re feeling about the book, on the night. Usually, I will ask general thoughts, and feelings, first, then we might discuss certain passages, quotes, or themes a little more in depth, depending on what was brought up from the initial questions. Then, anyone that wants to stay on a bit longer can grab a drink and chat more about books, or anything really.”

“We meet every two months to chat about the books, so the months in between we will put out a newsletter with a review of the books, and a couple other bits and bobs too, like if we’re going to see films, or having a social night, etc.” November’s I Who Have Never Known Men has already sold out. While I haven’t yet found a quote to substitute for a conclusion, you’ll likely unearth something infinitely sharper at the hands of Muriel Spark in the first book of the new year; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Tickets via Eventbrite here.

Stef’s 3 favourite FBC books so far:

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers – Jenn Shapland

Breasts and Eggs – Mieko Kawakami

A Decolonial Feminism – Françoise Vergès


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