Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Get to Know Literary London, with Jean McKay of the Landon Book Group

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Landon Book Group

The Landon Branch of the London Public Library is a hub of activity for London's lively literary scene. In addition to hosting Poetry London and housing Ted Goodden's poetry-inspired stained glass windows, it is also home to the Landon Book Group. Today the group's facilitator, local author Jean McKay, tells Open Book how this diverse group of readers and writers grew into an opinionated, passionate bunch who can only be lured away from meetings by the likes of Leonard Cohen.

Open Book:

Tell us about how and when your book club got started.

Jean McKay:

In the first place, you'll notice that we call it a "group" rather than a "club." That makes it a bit more welcoming to new members.

The group started in 1998 because Gordon Price, the librarian, noticed a need for it. The Landon branch is all about community, and he felt that serious readers could benefit from meeting to talk about books. He asked me to facilitate the group, because I was already leading writing workshops at the library. Over the years there's been quite a bit of overlap between members of the book group and writing workshop participants. It's a good mix, because reading and writing are part of the same activity. Writing helps us to read better; reading helps us to write better.


How has your book club evolved over the years?


At first participants were shy about voicing their opinions. Occasionally people felt that because they'd had less education than some of the other members that their opinions wouldn't be as valid or interesting. Once we all got over that, the discussions really took off. My job at first was to encourage discussion; now it's more a matter of crowd control.


How do you decide which books to read?


I choose the books that we read. The majority of them are novels, although we've done a couple of short story collections, a couple of autobiographies and a bit of poetry. On two or three occasions we've watched a film. Sometimes I select them thematically ("coming-of-age" stories; books centered around the concept of "home"), for example. This year it's geographical: a novel from each province. Sometimes I choose them randomly. Then it's fun to discover a theme after the fact. I try to find books that participants wouldn't usually read. And I'm pretty careful about "craft." I insist that we do books that are well written. Another thing I insist on is discussion of at least one "classic" each year. It's good to keep in mind where the genre of novel has come from. Older books often shine a light on newer ones. And it's interesting to see how the actual "activity" of reading has to change to accommodate the older books.


What would you say is one of your book club's unique characteristics?


One of the unique characteristics of the meetings is that any opinion is regarded as valid, as long as it's presented seriously. (Scorn has no place in this kind of discourse, and is not allowed to stand on its own.) At first, some people stayed away from the meeting if they didn't like the book. Now most people understand that it's fun to find out why they don't like it.


What was the last book your group read that really stood out for you?


I try to choose books that will give rise to different reactions. So the discussions are lively. And because of this, it's hard to recommend a book that has "really stood out" for us. I took this question to the group, and they couldn't find a consensus. And I think that's healthy.


What advice do you have for someone hoping to start up a book club?


The group gave me some input on this, too. Don't overthink it; just do it. It's good to have a facilitator. It's good to have a neutral location (i.e., a library, rather than participants' homes), so the discussion stays on track. No food ( and the possible competition that arises from providing it). There's a restaurant/bar across the street from our library, and most of us go there after the meetings. So there's a natural break between book discussion and socializing. Make sure to attend even if you hate the book. Make sure to welcome new people. Often a book group is the first foothold for people new to the city or neighbourhood. The book group situation is like a laboratory for democracy, and we can all learn by paying kindly attention to each other. We can learn to socialize with the same open minds we use to read.

We have a core of a dozen or so people. Sometimes that goes up to 18 or 20. On the night this picture was taken Leonard Cohen was in town, so half the group had gone to hear him. And I notice that the picture is all women. Generally we've had two or three male participants, not always the same ones. At the moment there are three, who weren't at this meeting.

Jean McKay has lived in London since 1971. She's been involved with various aspects of "reading and writing" at the Landon branch library for almost 20 years. She's published two books with Coach House Press (Gone to Grass, and The Dragonfly Fling), and most recently one with Douglas & McIntyre (Exploded View). She's also published a chapbook (The Page-turner's Sister), with Trout Lily Press.

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