Squeezed around a table in the Irish Times pub on Little Collins Street, the men of the Melbourne city “chapter” of the Tough Guy Book Club seem pleased I’ve asked to join them. Welcoming me warmly, the nine of them shuffle around to make room and thoughtfully clear the ruins of their pub meals from in front of me. “Here’s a menu,” one says. “Can I get you a beer?” asks another, adding to the good first impression the group is making. So good, in fact, I’m unnerved. Have I’ve walked into an ambush? Is this a men’s rights group in disguise? Are they Amway salesmen? Happy clappers? Bronies?
The feeling lingers as the chapter president, Lucas Earl, a bearded 27-year-old in jeans and a long-sleeve baseball T-shirt, suggests we make a start. But before we begin discussing this month’s book – Kim Scott’s 2010 Miles Franklin-winning That Deadman Dance – everyone at the table, as is customary, must introduce himself. “But don’t mention what you do for a living,” clarifies Earl, pointing out to me, and another newcomer, that “no work talk” is rule two of Tough Guy Book Club. “Rule one,” he adds, is “no dickheads.”
“Well, that’s me out then,” I say, getting up from my chair as if to leave, which raises a few chuckles and puts me a little more at ease.
In turn, each man – ranging in age from, at a guess, mid 20s to mid 50s – briefly takes centre stage. Snippets of their lives emerge. One is recently married. One expresses pride in his daughter’s sporting endeavours at the weekend. One is needing an evening like this after a tough week. When it’s his turn, the other new attendee – late 40s, clipped beard, amiable, chatty, a father – says matter-of-factly that he has come along this evening because he’s a book lover but also because he doesn’t have a lot of male friends and it’s an absence that he feels needs addressing.
The men around the table find neither a sudden impulse to inspect the ceiling or make a joke to extinguish his candour as if it’s a spot fire in the undergrowth. Nor do they engulf him with the kind of mammarian bear hugMeat Loaf’s bosomy character, Bob, gives Ed Norton’s character in Fight Club. Rather, they take the revelation with an equanimity that suggests they understand where he’s coming from.
As Earl tells me later, TGBC – which costs members nothing but the price of the books they read and any pints and parmigianas they might choose to consume – is not a self-help group. It does, however, strive to foster a supportive culture for men. “One of the intentions is to give blokes a safe space, a space they can share with other guys who, no matter what they do, or what age they are, or where they’re from, are equals.”
Last year the Australia Council for the Arts released a survey of Australia’s book reading habits. It showed, staggeringly, that 75.1% of the males surveyed classed themselves as non-readers (compared with 24.6% of females). Of the 24.9% of males who claimed to be readers, only 39% read frequently. On that basis the Tough Guy Book Club is like a snow leopard convention, a place where members of a rare species can mingle with likeminded souls, and perhaps even marvel that they’re not alone in the world.
But as Earl has pointed out, TGBC – which has 12 chapters in Victoria, five in Queensland, three in Tasmania, and one each in Canberra and Sydney, with a 23rd in Portland, Oregon – is not just about reading and discussing books. Nor is it simply an excuse for a midweek drink. Men could join any old book club for that.
“If you’ve been a guy for more than 30 years you know that there are things broken [with masculinity],” says TGBC’s founder, Shay P Leighton. “You know that we guys have problems. Among other things, we need to talk more.”
Leighton is informed by personal experience. About six years ago he experienced the demise of a relationship, a business, and some close friendships in a short space of time. “And that resulted in some shabby behaviour [from me],” he says, suggesting that his life began to stultify. “Nobody asked me for years if I was OK. I worked in hospitality for 15 years and knew thousands of people but no one was checking on me.” It was then that a friend, Tom Scott, returned from overseas. “He could see I was a mess and he asked me if I was OK. I said, ‘No, I’m not.’”
Knowing Leighton enjoyed organising events, Scott suggested he start some kind of club. After considering a chess club, Leighton proposed a book club. The idea behind that, and the club’s ban on work talk, he suggests, had long been gestating. “One of the first things men say when they meet a new man is, ‘What do you do?’ It frames their whole [interaction]. For me, working in hospitality, I only ever talked about work. At some point it felt like I had nothing else to say. And I thought that was very strange. I couldn’t tell someone who I was, only what I did for money.”
From the outset they called their venture Tough Guy Book Club – a name open to interpretation. Does it refer to the authors? The readers? Both? Is it intended ironically, perhaps, to play on an idea that tough guys – “real men” – don’t read books?
“It’s a funny name,” allows Leighton, but it’s one, he says, chosen to tap into one of the club’s aims; to explore and challenge the popular idea that a man should be physically tough, stoical and consistent despite the world moving on around him.
“I’ve been told my entire life that I’m meant to be tough but I honestly can’t explain to you what that means. I know I’m meant to be it but I don’t know what it is ... So we do read lots of books with what could be thought of as tough characters in them ... and we chop down and get to the core of what makes a man tough.”
The purpose of this, he says, is to spark a conversation about masculinity at a time when “[male] suicide rates are going through the roof, where we are killing partners and each other at extraordinary rates, and there’s a raft of less dramatic things that are hurting us; loneliness being one of them.
“But what happens if you have no one in your life, if you don’t have any friends, if you haven’t talked to any one, or had a decent relationship for years? And you’re told to stay the same. How do you improve things? How do you learn to change?
“I think you can learn from other people’s stories, by putting yourself in their shoes, by experimenting with what you want to do, what you want to be. So reading books about tough characters and exploring their actions and thoughts can help you work out what needs to change and improve in your own life. And explaining that to someone else gives you a sounding board, a way to work through and process this stuff.”
Over the past year the club’s reading list has included As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Johnno by David Malouf, Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, Home by Toni Morrison and The Jesus Man by Christos Tsiolkas. After a run of heavy subject matter there’s often a lighter, palate cleanser thrown in: the latest book, was Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
The club’s annual book list – chosen in advance by Leighton and a few others during a day spent drinking whisky and beer (“My favourite day of the year,” Leighton says) – certainly tends to the male and muscular but Leighton says they are conscious of diversifying. “Guys haven’t been great at reading queer authors, authors of colour, female authors ... How are we going to learn things and be more 3D participants in the world if don’t read people who have different experiences and ideas from our own?”
This seems to fit with rule one and a question asked of those looking to join the group’s Facebook subgroup, The Pool Hall: “Lastly, our number 1 rule at TGBC is our “100% don’t be a fuckhead rule”. This means don’t be a prick, including any kind of anti-woman, anti-LGBTI, or racist bullshit. If you understand, answer OK.”
The first meeting of the TGBC took place in a Collingwood bar in 2012 and the only members were Leighton and Scott. Before long a man approached them and, learning that they were a nascent book club, asked to join. Social media, posters and word of mouth led to more chapters being opened.
The club, run by Leighton with the help of other volunteers, has no bookkeeping. As such, numbers are sketchy, but there are more than 5,700 followers on Facebook, some 530 members on the Pool Hall, and Leighton estimates that between about seven and 16 men attend each of the 23 chapters every month.
Interestingly, he adds, many new arrivals admit they haven’t read a book since high school: “We hook them with the promise of beers and the cool pictures on the website.”
Of course, TGBC also offers the lure of companionship. Considering its growth, Leighton must be pleased with how things have worked out. “Yes,” he concedes when pressed, “but I’m not seeking accolades. That’s dickish.”
TGBC has naturally led to friendships forming outside the confines of the book groups. It’s also spawned an annual camp held over the AFL grand final long weekend (yes, they watch the game). Last September about 50 members from around the country attended. “It was like going back to primary school,” says Earl, who joined TGBC in 2016 after moving to Melbourne from Sydney. “We slept in bunks, in dorms, we did archery lessons, bush craft lessons. It was fantastic. As with the monthly meetings we all got to meet men we’d never otherwise cross paths with.”
Returning to my evening at the book club, which is peppered with “beer breaks” – affording opportunities for smaller, more personal conversations to break out – we’re deep into a discussion of That Deadman Dance. In it, Kim Scott explores the first contact between the Noongar people of Western Australia and 19th century Europeans. When it’s mentioned that Scott is Indigenous someone at the table wonders aloud if a white man could write a similar book. This sparks an engaged and interesting conversation about cultural appropriation, the ownership of stories, the creative reach of authors, and about men finding themselves in strange environments.
Having been in book clubs before, usually as the only male, I’d felt like a stranger in a strange land myself at the start of the evening. So much so that I’d wondered, cynically, if there had to be an ulterior motive to all this male conviviality. But in the end it was just what it said on the cover: blokes, books and beers.
“People think there’s an agenda and they are always trying to work it out,” Leighton says. “If there is an agenda it’s that men are not OK right now. It’s simple. We need to read more and we need to talk more.”