As promised, I am putting up a couple of posts that I had written for a putative blog for the bookshop I manage. I have written a few, but haven’t been able to go live with my blog yet. I need to hammer out some sort of deal with my head office. They have just moved into a shiny new office, with shiny new furniture and shiny new computers. What they do not have, despite promises to the contrary by various government departments, are shiny new telephone lines and shiny new internet connections. They’re a little distracted right now. This is not hammer time.


Which is a pity, since hammer time is probably my favourite time.

Which is a pity, since hammer time is probably my favourite time.

I am hoping to recruit a few more bookclubs for my store. And I suspect I’m going to run into a little trouble from all of you.

I remember hearing, years ago, that the South African bookclub is a unique thing. Our thing. The story went that isolated farming communities were getting together to pool their resources to get hold of books, which they then shared among themselves, like a members-only library. Somewhere along the line, people realised that the social aspect of these clubs was as fun as the literary one, and when the isolated farmers started to move to town, they took their bookclubs with them.

And there’s more to the story, too. Bookclubs were, back in the day, a white thing. But they were one of the few crossovers, in the days of “whites only” park benches and policemen in body-armour patrolling local shopping centres and plastic relief posters of terrorist bombs on post office walls, between white and black culture.

Black people, back in the day, were largely denied access to formal financial structures like banking and insurance. So they created their own structures, and one of these was the “stokvel”. It’s a curious sort of name, because it’s Afrikaans, and means “stick skin”. And no, I don’t know why.

This does not clear anything up.

This does not clear anything up.


A stokvel works like this; a group of friends or neighbours gets together for some specific purpose. It could be for weddings, or funerals, or parties, or pretty much anything that requires the occasional injection of cash.

Each member makes a monthly contribution, which is held in trust. When the need arises, the money goes to the member who needs it, or to the group as a whole (this works pretty damn well with parties). It is, in effect, an old school insurance policy, without the bank charges and taxes and formal legal requirements. And it lives on. For now. I was a little crushed to hear a formal banker type on the radio the other day announcing that she thought stokvels were a very good idea and the formal sector felt it was high time they got involved. To help. Not to take their share of all that lovely money, I’m sure. But I digress.

A bookclub is essentially a stokvel; a bunch of private individuals pooling their resources for their mutual benefit. Books. I can think of no better way to manage a cultural crossover.

And now you get to burst my bubble and tell me that there are bookclubs all over the world, and they have nothing to do with stokvels. You can go first, Australia…


A typical Australian sets of for his bookclub meeting.

A typical Australian sets of for his bookclub meeting.

Anyway, here’s my putative bookclub post. Mzansi is South Africa. I’ve blanked out some of the names, because that’s how I roll (few of you might have realised that my name isn’t really 23thorns…).

“I come from a large, loud, boisterous gang of a family. We are close. Growing up, we moved as a pack; whatever we did, we did as a group. We socialised as a family. Any friends our parents had were family friends. We travelled as a family, stayed at home as a family, went out to dinner as a family. My mother was (and is) a homemaker, and spent most of her life running around behind four busy children. And then there were “the girls”.

The girls.

The girls.


Once a month, on the last Thursday of every month, my mother would set aside the school lunches and the birthday parties and the extra lessons and the soccer matches and the family braais, and head off to spend a morning with “the girls”. She still does.

It was, as far as I ever knew, the only thing she ever did which was hers and hers alone. I never really knew who “the girls” were. They were not my mother’s friends in the way we understood the concept. They didn’t know my father well enough to call him his nickname like all the other grownups around us did. We children were not required to prefix their names with “Aunt”. They never popped in for a visit on the weekend or dropped in for a cup of coffee after the school run. I have met one or two of them over the years, incidentally at shopping centres or restaurants, but I could not name a single one of them now.

“The girls” are my mother’s bookclub. My mother is in her seventies now, and “the girls” have been together for longer than I have been alive; more than four decades (which should call into question their definition of themselves as “girls”, but who am I to question the wisdom of my elders?). There have, no doubt, been changes over the years, as people have moved away and new people have moved in, but the core has remained the same. Yup. “The girls” have shown more commitment to their bookclub than most people show to their marriages.


They might be getting on a bit, but they're still a pretty rough crowd.

They might be getting on a bit, but they’re still a pretty rough crowd.

What they are doing, if my understanding is correct, is uniquely South African.

Sure, other countries have things called bookclubs. We would call them reading circles. They work like this; all the members of the club go out and buy a book. The same book. They read it. Then they get together and talk about it. Which is, I’m sure, very nice, if you’re into that sort of thing, but sounds just a little bit like work to me. School work.

There are even clubs that go one better. They are correctly referred to as book reading clubs. They sound magnificent. A group of people get together once a month, and one of their number reads a book to them. Aloud. I would pay good money to be a fly on the wall at one of their meetings. I have so many questions. Does the reader do different voices when the characters are speaking? Are there sound effects? Are the listeners allowed to make eye-contact with the reader? Do you get kicked out if you shoot coffee out of your nose during a pivotal sex-scene?


Sorry! Allergies!

Sorry! Allergies!

And in South Africa? Things work a little differently. ‘Round here, your bookclub gets together to buy the books. And you get to read them by yourself. This is how it works;

  • Step one:            Go and find yourself a bunch of members. They don’t have to be girls. Or even women. You can even invite a boy or two. It would be best if they aren’t all friends of yours. Choose one or two of your own friends, and get them to choose one or two of theirs, and so on. If you suffer from OCD, it would be best to get twelve members; one for each month. If not, you can get away with anything from about six to about fifteen.


  • Step two:            Go to the ♦♦♦♦Books in ♦♦♦♦ and fill out a book-club registration form. You’ll need to leave a copy of your license, and fill in the contact details of all of your members.


  • Does it have to be the ♦♦♦♦Books in ♦♦♦♦? It most certainly does. If you go somewhere else, we will be sad. We will be distant when we are with our partners, and short tempered with our children. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you?


  • Step three:         Set yourself up a roster. Each time you meet, you need to have a different member acting as the book-getter. For your first meeting, I’m going to assume that it’s you, since you are clearly a trailblazer and an adventurous spirit.


  • Step four:            At last, we come to the book part. Go and get some books. From ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. We’d prefer for you to take novels, but won’t be too upset if you throw in a novel-sized biography or history. Stay away from the R1000,00 cookery books, though. Choose about twelve or so books. Don’t worry, you won’t be buying all of these. We’re just going to let you take them home. Because we know you aren’t going to read them for free and then bring them back. We are trusting like that. You will, of course, need to check them out at the till; we do need to keep some semblance of order round here.


  • Step five:             You are now ready for your first meeting. Arrange a get-together with the other members. Bring wine. You might just need it; you’re about to have an argument. Haul out the books you got and display them to the assembled members. You’re about to whittle them down from twelve to the four or five you are going to buy. Things are going to get a little heated. Someone is going to make a snide remark about at least one the books you chose, and everyone will disagree about which books to buy. If they don’t, your members are not passionate enough about books, or arguing, and you need to kick them out and choose another lot.


  • Step six:               That’s it as far as the book part of your bookclub meeting goes. All you need to do is draw up another roster so that, over the next few weeks or months, each member gets a chance to read each of the books you have chosen to buy. If you were left unsatisfied by your argument about books, you can now have an argument about money (We do need to get paid, after all). If not, you have nowhere else to be. You have wine. If you’ve chosen well, you have good company. You have wine. And you have one night off from the rest of your life which is yours and yours alone. Make the most of them.
We're not here to judge...

We won’t judge you, I promise…


  • Step seven:        The next day, bring the books you have decided not to buy back to ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. And bring some money for the books you have decided to keep. So very pleased will we be that, if you buy enough books, we will give you a discount. And the more books you buy, the more pleased will we be.

So that’s it. That’s how to bookclub, Mzansi style. It’s all rather straightforward.

It is not, however, ironclad. If you live out of town, or happen to know exactly what you want, you can simply buy the books before the meeting. As long as you have registered, and spend above the threshold limit, you will still get your discount. But you’ll be missing out on a damn fine argument. Just saying.




You can, should you feel that way inclined, buy a copy of the same book for each member of the club, read it beforehand, and then discuss it at the meeting. We will be impressed, and ever so slightly intimidated.

You can even buy just a single book, and read it out loud at your next bookclub meeting. You are unlikely to qualify for the official discount, but if you promise to invite us along to your meeting, I’m sure we can make a plan. If you use different voices for different characters, throw in the odd sound effect, and cover a pivotal sex-scene, you might even get to see us shoot coffee out of our noses.

I owe you a bit of an apology. This article was called “Why you should start a bookclub”, not “How you should start a bookclub”, and now I’ve been rattling on about admin for an age, and am running out of time. And space.

So here goes. We live in a city. So many of us have been thrown together in so little space that we have become isolated. We are friends to our friends, family to our family, and avoid everyone else. We don’t get together for village fairs or barn raisings or cake-sales at the town hall. Half of us don’t even know our neighbours. It’s bad for us. We need to get out more. And if we do so in honour of books, so much the better.


Some people choose to be isolated. This woman, however, clearly has cooties.

Some people choose to be isolated. This woman, however, clearly has cooties.

But that’s not all! We are by no means a selfless society, and yet we have somehow forgotten to do things for ourselves. Not selfish things, just our own things. We live for our jobs or our children or our partners. We spend our free time doing team-building exercises with colleagues, or watching our children play sport, or hanging around with people who aren’t blood kin, but whom our children refer to as “Aunt So-and-so” or “Uncle Whatsit”

We need to start doing more things that are our own things, not shared things. We need to find more people who are our own people, not shared people. We need to spend a little time that is our own time, not shared time. And if we satisfy that need with something as harmless and benevolent as a bookclub, no-one in our lives can honestly claim that their feelings are being hurt.

But wait! There’s more! (Sorry. I watched a lot of infomercials in the eighties). One day we’re all going to be in our seventies. What a rare thing it would be to look back and to remember that you popped out one evening all those years ago to check out what this whole “bookclub” thing was all about. To remember feeling a little nervous, a little shy, and a little excited about trying a new thing with new people. And to remember that it turned out to be good enough to stick with for forty years, through arrivals and departures and births and deaths and marriages and divorces. And then to stop looking back and instead start looking forward, because you would be doing it again next Thursday.

Just remember to take along some bail money.

Just remember to take along some bail money.


And that is all. No more “there’s mores”. Except for a rather obvious one. More books. For less money. At ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦.”

17 thoughts on “Bookclubs.

  1. Zina says:

    Thanks for the fun read. I’m re-posting this onto our book club blog:
    We’re based in Vancouver, BC and will be celebrating 10 years of book clubbing in 2015! Hope we get to see another decade or two 🙂 We’re nerdy enough to actually discuss the books during our meetings…amongst other things!
    Happy reading!

  2. mariekeates says:

    I suspect there is a lot of gossip and not a lot of reading at the book clubs. Still, if it makes people buy books who cares?

  3. narf77 says:

    That’s twice in a couple of days that you have been first in my queue of blog posts to read Mr 23Thorns. You are making a habit of that. Must be a portent for something. It’s not usual for you to post within a matter of days of your last post. Luckily, I can adjust my blog reading schedule accordingly because you picked a slow day on my RSS Feed Reader but the next post is mighty competition for yours sir…I am champing at the bit to learn from Ms Atomic Shrimp, how to make a sign out of a Stella Artois can. Stevie-boy is champing at the bit for me to move along to the next post as well. He doesn’t ordinarily pay much of a muchness about what I am reading at any given time BUT this next post holds the promise of extra liquor thanks to my lack of Stella Artois cans and my need to get hold of some if I am to use my creative genius to knock out a couple of titillating signs post haste.

    Your post is also vying with a request for me to sign a petition against our Ag-gag laws. Apparently, some numpty in government thinks it’s a great idea to punish environmental whistle blowers to the highest degree. It would seem that exposing big businesses lies and corruption and animal cruelty is a bad thing for Australia and we should lock up anyone doing so…your post has some stiff competition Mr 23Thorns…

    I get the feeling that your love of “hammer time” is both metaphorical and physical Mr 23Thorns and I must admit I am distracted from that tin can sign by the promising allure of the “Top 19 Most Hilarious Dog Vs. Cat Moments”. So far so good Mr 23Thorns…I shall read on…

    People doing it for themselves and shoring/hedging their own bets Mr 23Thorns, the plot thickens and just got MUCH more interesting…nothing like a dose of community going bolshie on “The Man” to garner some of my World weary, flaccid Middle Aged interest…go on Mr 23Thorns…do go on…

    We ride wombats to our book club meetings here in Tasmania. The native “kangaroos” are too small and have been given their own name “wallaby” and while they deserve to be flattened by book club aficionados for the sins that they visit on our gardens, PETA has their eyes on us and so the more sturdy and less squashable (albeit slower…) wombat is our only option. It means that we are often late to our book club meetings and some of us end up doing an Alice and going where no book club member should have to go…underground. Thems the breaks when you are an Australian and you choose to read.

    There is only one problem with your newfound desire to spread book utopia throughout the known (and perhaps unknown, you need to find new markets Mr 23Thorns…) world that I can see. Sharing books, making communal purchases, “spreading the knowledge and enjoyment love”, is all well and good on paper. Mr Lennon attempted the very same thing with “Imagine” and that’s about where this sort of blissful Utopia falls flat on its proverbial. Human nature sees people not wanting to share Mr 23Thorns. They don’t want to pay for a profound experience that they can revisit and pass it on. Call it the “Sméagol” syndrome if you must. They want their preciouses close to hand where they can stroke them at will and remind themselves that there be dragons at any given time. Handing over said preciouses to others means giving away that life-line…tantamount to asking a meth-head to hand over their crack sir. I wish you all the luck in the world with that…

    I applaud you Mr 23Thorns. You even have me, a self-proclaimed hermit, wanting to race out to one of our local book stores and start a book club of my own just so that I can salve my desire to interact with the rest of the human species one day a month. You are quite a wordsmith sir but calling a book club, a place where you can saturate your mind, your heart, your soul with the intimate pleasure of the written word “harmless and benevolent” is surely a little like a dealer telling a nervous teenager “it’s OK you won’t get addicted…the first one is free…”? Are you really ready for that kind of responsibility sir?

    I am guessing that although you changed the names in your post you kept the name of your bookstore? I am also wondering how attempting to sell said bookstore to your legion of adoring dear constant readers who are predominately international is going to help your cause? I am wondering if the next post in this well-crafted series is going to ask us to start an international book club? If so COUNT ME IN! Who needs money? My crack is books. That moth eaten sock under the bed has survived our constant attention of late and even Earl squeezing under and giving it a good seeing to but this, Mr 23Thorns, this newfound desire of mine to put down my crochet and fondle a page or 10 may just cause it to crawl off and die. When one starts off down the path of the written word there may be dragons alright…there may also be no return.

  4. rose2852 says:

    ‘But wait, there’s more’. This line from the 80’s almost made me drop my cup of afternoon tea. The Aussie version of the ads: Hide your shoes.

    • 23thorns says:

      He seems so calm and peaceful! I was wondering how he ever sold anything, but then he started throwing tomatos around and savaging innocent footwear. Now I need a knife…

  5. Fabulous concept South Africa! Leading the world in how to have quality ‘me’ time!! I once belonged to a book club wherein the reading part was a thinly veiled excuse for us to discuss our lives, our philosophies and our angsts 🙂 [We were young] It was a great experience but folded after about six months due to lack of commitment to ‘me’ time I guess.

    If I was in SA I’d be running to my nearest ****Books! I wonder how – or even if – we could start an international book club …….

    • 23thorns says:

      You don’t need a **** Books. You don’t need any sort of formal structure at all, just a bunch of friends clubbing together to buy some books to share among themselves…

  6. ashokbhatia says:

    Good post. Diversity in reading makes up for much of spice in life!

  7. I agree with Timewalkauthor – we only seem to have the ‘let’s all buy the same book and discuss it, very politely!’ type of book club here in the UK – I have to say I prefer your version best! 🙂

  8. Makes me wish we had things like this here in America–it’s hard enough to find (or create) the “reading circle” variety of book club here, let alone something like this.

    • 23thorns says:

      That’s the beauty of the system; all you need are a couple of friends and a place to get books from. you can startt one tomorrow…

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