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Think before you speak, read before you think and please pass the beef bourguignon

Opinion

Turning over a new leaf can be a surprisingly rewarding experience, no matter what your stage of life, writes Michael Blucher

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“Did I want to join a what? A book club?”

Just how old – and close-to-the-end-of-life did the sender of the email, the extender of the invitation, think I was?

Isn’t that the last, indignant step elderly people take before somebody puts them in a wooden box? Sit around with others also on the verge of expiry and talk about books they’ve read?

Try as I might, I couldn’t think of any activity more sloth-like, and less suited to somebody with my energy and vitality. To assume I’d even be remotely interested was insulting. I had a good mind, not just to respond tersely to the invitation via return email, but to follow up on the phone – give this bloke a few rounds of the kitchen. I wanted him to hear the anger in my voice.

Anyway, after my copy of the first book arrived in the mail, I started ploughing hastily through the pages, scribbling notes in my special red note book, with the words “Book Club” written on the front.

I might have been old and decrepit, but there was no way I was going to appear stupid or ill prepared in front of my fellow book clubbers.

Observation One. Character development excellent. Only two chapters in and we already have a strong divide in the power base within the family.

I looked smugly at the words on the page. “Bet nobody else has noticed that,” I said, in a rare moment of self-congratulation.

On it went. Observation after observation, insight after insight, only rarely searching online to see if my thinking was aligned with people who actually knew what they were talking about. Apparently it wasn’t. Thank goodness I’d written those “preliminary” observations in pencil.

There was much excitement in the build-up to the inaugural meeting, though privately, I wondered if we we’d ever get around to discussing the book. Most of the pre-event banter centred around coming up with an appropriate name for the club, and what we should bring to drink, to complement the beef bourguignon the host, “Mr Five Star” was serving for dinner.

If we were really honest, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. Only one of the seven invitees had ever been a member of a book club before, and that was when he was much, much younger. Just married in fact.

He and few mates formed a “book” club so they could sneak away from their wives and get on the drink once a month. But there were no books. In fact, anybody who even mentioned a book had to shout a round of drinks.

We agreed that experience wasn’t necessarily relevant to the 2020 reincarnation of the book club concept. Not yet, anyway.

Amid much excitement, launch night arrived.

“OK, who’d like to start?” Five-Star asked, after we’d all demolished our third helping of his six-star beef bourguignon and, out of middle-aged habit, topped up our wine glasses.

I observed a few furtive glances around the table as the formalities began. “Jeez, we are actually going to talk about the book”. Nobody said it, but I suspect that’s what quite a few thought. I know I did.

Thank goodness for my little red book. I opened it to the first page. and looked down assuredly at the bold block letters: “OBSERVATION 1”. I quickly refreshed my memory, at the same time positioning the notebook on the table where all the others could see it.

If anybody had bothered to try and read my mind at that point, they may or may not have seen the words: “Look Sir, I’ve done my homework” written across my forehead.

Others, it must be said, were not as well prepared. The Architect explained he was still waiting for the arrival of his book in the post. A stock issue, apparently. But he also lived on Stradbroke Island, so that too could have been a factor.

Nobody at the table was sure if Australia Post serviced Straddie. The Architect was exonerated, but also mildly admonished for his inactivity.

Another clubber, The Ad Guy, had down-loaded the book onto his Kindle – the source of significant middle-aged admiration – until he conceded he hadn’t yet worked out how to turn the page. But he assured us he’d thoroughly enjoyed page one. Over and over again.

Ad Guy promised he’d master the technology in time for the consumption of Book No 2. Another exoneration – the Kindle story was enough humiliation for one night.

The remaining readers …. well you’ve never heard such a spirited exchange of thoughts, views, insights, opinions, suggestions, and of course OBSERVATIONS, some of which were even my own (certainly not to be found on goodreads.com, though I have book-marked the page, just for future reference).

By the end of the night, there was strong consent around the table – this book club concept actually had a lot of legs. It was good clean fun. And strangely educational.

You were constantly reminded about the different ways people look at the same thing – their own lens, their pre-existing prejudices helping form images and deliver shades of bias that others can’t see.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Nobody. That’s just the way it is. In books, like so many other facets of life, you can often find what you go looking for.

The Professor (another club member) referred to it as “confirmation bias”. We all had to look that up. There are a lot of things The Professor says that nobody understands.

There was also the fine balance between talking and listening. This group seemed to get it right. I couldn’t help thinking, imagine if business meetings were conducted in the same manner. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant and productive change?

Since Mr Five Stars’ six-star Beef bourguignon evening, there’s been two more books devoured, and sumptuous meals prepared – a slow-cooked beef pasta sauce over fresh handmade Gnocchi, sprinkled with pecorino cheese, and most recently, spicy Thai meatballs, brought to life with a light curry sauce, and served on a bed of jasmine rice, with a side of steamed greens, drizzled in chilli oil. Did I mention the host also provided dinner?

Since the inaugural meeting, we’ve also established that Australia Post does make it across to Stradbroke Island, at least every now and then. The Architect has arrived at Meeting No.2 and No.3 meticulously prepared, with nominated book in hand.

And the Ad Guy – he’s making that Kindle sing, colour-coding quotes, highlighting relevant paragraphs and circulating them via email, all with the flick of a few keystrokes.

He’s even introduced us to “zero alcohol” wine and beer. Not everybody’s on board with that yet – some of us still have young children – but it’s early days.

Yes it’s going well. Who would have thought, a bunch of supposedly grumpy middle-aged men, at peace with the world, extracting simple pleasure from such a sedentary pursuit – one they mistakenly thought was reserved for the elderly.

How good is reading? As the old saying goes, “think before you speak, read before you think”.

We’re squeezing in one final get together before the end of the year. I’m not rapt in the choice of Book No.4, but therein lies another upside of “the club”- you’re encouraged to read material you normally wouldn’t.

I know I’ll plough through. I wouldn’t dare miss The Controller’s turn at hosting. He’s an excellent cook.

One final confession, if any of my close friends are reading this, please don’t tell my wife. She doesn’t know about the book club.

She thinks I’m at the pub.

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