This is all to the good, in my view. A deathly earnestness so often creeps into programmes about books (especially on Radio 4) that you never get in shows about sport or pop music, giving the off-putting impression that books are primarily meant to be good for you, rather than sexy, thrilling, naughty or fun.
Here the irreverence was funny (“I just don’t think poems should be epic,” Pascoe told Wang when he enthused about The Iliad, “If you can’t say it in a page like Wendy Cope then maybe you’re not very good, Homer”) but was combined with an obvious passion for books among the panellists, and the odd astute critical remark.
The trouble with the show was that it was over-stuffed. Not only was there a book club book to be discussed – in this opening programme it was Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library – but Pascoe was asked to talk about one of her own books, and the panellists were invited to nominate their favourite book, the book they would give to a date, the funniest book they’ve read, the fictional character they would most like to meet … all in the space of half an hour.
To get the full book club experience, I read The Midnight Library beforehand. It’s an engaging fable about a young woman who regards herself as having failed in every aspect of her life and takes an overdose of antidepressants. She wakes up in a sort of celestial library in which her old school librarian packs her off to jump Quantum Leap-style into the other lives she might have led if she’d made different choices – contented mother, glaciologist in the Arctic, international rock star, Olympic swimming champion and so on.
The programme featured a short interview with Matt Haig in which he explained how his own experiences of depression and a “full-blown breakdown” inspired the book’s message about the importance of taking agency over your own life. But it would have been good to hear more from Haig – perhaps to have had the panellists put questions to him in the studio à la Radio 4’s Book Club.