Clubbing through Thursday

A combo of two suggestions by: Heidi and by litlove

Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group choose (or, if you haven’t been, what do you think is the best way to choose) the next book and who would lead discussion?
Do you feel more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading experience?

I haven’t done a booking through Thursday post in ages, and then I noticed that my question was up – yay! So I thought I should say a few words about why the question interests me.

I have never been in a book club despite having a desperate longing to be in one. No one I know has ever been motivated to start one up, probably because my local friends mostly all teach literature for a living and so don’t have the time or the inclination for more book chat. There are clubs organized by the local bookstores, but I am far too shy to meet up with a whole bunch of strangers, and in any case, I do worry about how I would behave at a meeting. When I get started talking about books I can become very over-excited, and couple that with the usual verbosity and spuriously authoritative traits of a teacher and I fear I might be a real pain in the neck. It would be too awful to finally find a book club only to be blackballed from it after the first meeting.

However, I do now belong to the Slaves of Golconda (see blogroll), which is the closest thing online to a book group that I’ve come across. I love all online interaction because it has the feel of immediacy about it, but you get a chance to pause and think carefully about what you want to say before plunging in. I’m also very fond of all the members in it, who have been blogging friends of mine for the past two years now. I have great respect for their reading skills and love to click around all the posts, drinking in everyone’s thoughts on the latest book. After all these years of working with literature I still find myself fascinated by the way that people respond so differently to the stories and see so many facets of a novel. When it comes to picking a book, the Slaves elect one member to offer a selection of novels and those are duly voted upon – it seems to be a great method because we all get a say in the choice. I find it quite exciting still – I love the moment when the selection is posted and we get a first look at the books on offer.

I asked my question because I have this theory that people will be that bit more courageous and experimental when they’re part of a community. I think that book clubs work best when the members stretch themselves a little, and agree to take on challenging books that they might not choose if they were reading alone just for relaxation. I think there’s something very primal in human beings that makes us like to discuss stories, to get more out of them than just the entertainment of listening, and that there is a very particular pleasure to be had when we work together to mine the layers of a story and extract its meaning. Rabelais, who was writing way back in the 17th century used the metaphor of sucking the sweet, nutritious marrow out of the bone – although you had to gnaw on it a bit first. And he also described the pleasure he got out of a story as being akin to the pleasure he had on opening up an apothecary’s box and seeing all the little vials and bottles inside. I know I read a story much better, much more carefully and mindfully when I know I’m going to discuss it with others, or write about it on the blog and that there is a special, intense pleasure available to me when I feel like I’m moving below its surface and puzzling its hidden secrets out.

That being said, I wouldn’t want to read this way all the time. Reading is also about escape for me, the delight of switching off my mind and letting another place and time swallow me up. And I love the feeling of really wanting to read a book, having a thirst for it almost, that only the story can quench, and that sensation isn’t bound up with books that have been chosen as a group decision and scheduled into my reading life. I’ll always persevere with books that are up for discussion, but I’m also more likely to see their faults and flaws because my heart is less engaged in the reading than my head. In the end, I want to have access to both kinds of reading, the trance-like state of pure relaxation that a novel can bring, and the lively aliveness of reading that comes with careful attention to the tale. And I just wondered what others felt about it, too.

(And sorry, folks, still no links available here. When will wordpress fix this?)

17 thoughts on “Clubbing through Thursday

  1. I think it would be great fun to be in a bookclub with you, Litlove!! So the Slaves is the next best thing. I like being able to ponder about a book and then write about it. Reading everyone else’s posts is always the best part as I get so much more out of the book. And I agree that challenging books are great when read in a group! I did belong to one local book group, which was fun, but I was always a little afraid of putting forth my really favorite books as possible reads for fear everyone else would hate it and I’d be crushed. But it was still a good experience. I think most of my reading is of the entertainment kind, but I am trying to be more conscientious about the more serious books I read. Great question.

  2. “I have this theory that people will be that bit more courageous and experimental when they’re part of a community.”

    I don’t know about that. If the members of the book club itself aren’t particularly diverse, the reading selection won’t be diverse–even if you’re voting on a list of choices.

  3. I don’t belong to a discussion kind of book club. I’m still burnt after four years of studying English Literature. I belong to a book-share kind of club, where towards the end of the evening, as an addendum to the other chat, we talk about the books we are reading. (We do have a member who is a little teacherly but we haven’t blackballed her yet, just developed tactics to rein her in when she hits the podium.)

    Having said that, I enjoy the kind of book-talk that goes on in the blogworld: I can reflect on my responses at length, dip into other people’s reviews, and click away when I’m done. That suits me right now. I also love that luxurious kind of reading, when I don’t plan to hone a response, but just revel in a story, which is why I don’t review everything I’ve read.

  4. I no longer belong to a live book club. I am, however, an honorary electronic member of the detective book club that’s based in Connecticut, which has been a very interesting experience for me, as I find I’m dying to join the group face-to-face, but I have a feeling I give my overall feelings about the book better on-line than I remember doing in live book clubs (I’ve belonged to many of those, usually — no, maybe all — originally founded by me at my places of employment or in my neighborhoods, and I’m hoping to found a new one soon in my new community). The clubs I’ve belonged to have ranged from excuses to gossip to excuses to eat exotic food (we had one in which everyone made a potluck dish based on the setting of the book, which means books were chosen by the foods we thought we’d like to cook and eat) to really, really good discussions solely about the books. I’ve loved them all, but I prefer the latter and think the best way to get that is to make sure food is not the center of attention for the gathering and that everyone else in the group is really most keen to talk about the book (this works best, I think, when you have a mixed group of people who don’t all know each other very well, so they can’t lapse into gossip). I’ve found that the best way to choose books is to have everyone throw a title into a hat and keep drawing out titles for each meeting until they’re all gone, which is how I’ve come to read some amazing books I never would have thought to read on my own (a function now filled by blogs. As a matter of fact, things have changed for me tremendously, because of blogs. I don’t feel anywhere near as strong a desire or need to belong to a book club as I used to feel). Seems I should have written my own post on this, no?

  5. Danielle – I can’t think of anything better than a proper book club with you and my other blogging friends. Wouldn’t that be perfect? Alas while we live on the four corners of the earth, the internet will have to do🙂 I know what you mean about fearing that other people won’t enjoy your favourite books and I wonder why that should be so – I wouldn’t mind if they didn’t like my favourite food. That’s a very intriguing question, too! John – Slaves are a great bunch of readers, always interested in swelling their numbers. Sya – I think book clubs have diversity like any kind of club, but I’ve read your response and see you have definite and unflattering views about them🙂 Each to their own, I say. Charlotte – I’m now really worried about what tactics my friends use to rein me in – I’ll have to keep an eye out for them!🙂 But I do agree – the book blogging world is just the best book community I have ever come across, and the amount and distance of involvement is often just right. Emily – I need you over here to organise a book club!! I can see how food could be distracting, if in the right quantities or of greater interest to some of the members than the books. I’m really interested in what you say about the desire for a book club shrinking as your engagement with the book bloggers grows. I can understand that. I wonder if the need for book chat is finite in every life? And that is one splendid comment you have left there – I am delighted always to house your views and ideas!

  6. I thought I’d pop over, after having done this BTT on my blog, since I saw your name! I love book groups (currently in two) – sometimes hard to find the time to read extra books a month, and quite often don’t much like them, but the discussions and the people are such fun. I joined these two to meet more people – somehow my natural shyness dissipates when I know I’ll be with bookish folk.

  7. The problem I have in book clubs is people always expect me to be the “expert.”

    But, i do like the process of discussing books with people who are not trained to tear the book limb from limb — people who read because they want to, not because it is their job.

  8. Since I began blogging about books, I have rediscovered the pleasure of delving more deeply into the heart of a book, “sucking the marrow” from it’s bones (what a great word picture that is!)so I can write about it with some degree of meaning.

    That being said, I still love sinking deep into a story with no other thought than being entertained, transported from my everyday world into another, more exciting existence🙂

    I’ve never been in a real life book club – not really sure if I want to be. It’s always been much easier for me to write about books than talk about them. I need time to organize my thoughts, I guess🙂

  9. I am wonderfully spoiled with my book club here in Switzerland – six women, which keep things small and we all come from very different backgrounds (and countries) so our perspectives are always coming in at various angles. The club has been running for a little over a year and I don’t know now what I would do without it. We just had our end-of-year dinner on Wednesday and I’m actually sad we won’t meet up again until September.

  10. I’m in one book club now and only joined it because a friend of mine belongs and asked if I’d like to join. I couldn’t possibly join one where I didn’t know anyone, which is why I haven’t joined the one advertised in my local library. I’m a bit shy.

    I agree that reading a book knowing you’re going to talk about it means reading in a different way – not just for the pure pleasure, but more slowly. However,sometimes a book is so good I just can’t pause to make notes. I also really enjoy thinking about the themes/characters etc “getting under the skin” and analysing a book too. This sometimes means I end up realising I like a book more than I thought I did when I was reading it.

  11. Simon – I think bookish folk are the nicest I know. Perhaps all that reading opens them up to other people’s perspectives and makes them that bit more accommodating. Two book clubs! I am impressed because that must mean a lot of reading. Emily – I’m sure you are a most gracious and helpful expert! And I know exactly what you mean about genuine interest – I’m really fond of students, but the discussions I get with bloggers are that bit better because they are genuinely curious about the books. Ravenous – I like talking about books, but even so, I appreciate the time to get my thoughts together and put forward a more measured response. And I’m just like you – I need both types of reading, depending on my mood! Verbivore – your club sounds wonderful! I’m so envious! If only I could be a fly on the wall…. Booksplease – yes, I think an invitation is by far and away the best way to join a club. And often thinking about a book and working it out has lifted the whole reading experience for me – many’s the book I’ve liked better after spending some time figuring out how to talk about it!

  12. I now find myself in three book groups, two in person and one online, when for most of my life I had never participated in any! I’m enjoying it, except that it means I read a lot of books that are chosen for me (or where I have input but don’t make the final decision). I’m feeling that my reading is more varied because of the groups, definitely. One of the groups, the mystery club, takes me into a very well established genre, but it’s one I haven’t read in a whole lot, so even there I’m extending myself. I think I read more carefully for these groups too — it doesn’t mean I don’t engage the books in the same way I do others, but I do take more time to analyze them.

  13. Dorothy – three groups is very impressive, and I know you well enough to be sure you would be a conscientious and generous reader in all of them. I’m sure that clubs do mean that one reads more widely – and I’ve very much enjoyed your reviews from the mystery club. I’d like to read along but I seem to regularly forget when the discussion is to be held. Dur!

  14. Litlove, I have to echo the comments that it would be great to be in a bookclub with you and the other book-bloggers. But the blog is a great way to share as well. I’m not in a bookclub at the moment but was in two in Johannesburg and one in Cape Town. Two were of the book-share (and eat and drink variety) and one was along the lines you describe where everyone reads the same book and then discusses it. I miss them – so it’s great to share ideas and books here. BTW loved the “Lost” chapter and will comment there in due course. I agree about a community or bookclub stretching people to read different things and be more courageous (at times). Thanks for the tip re Slaves.

  15. I’ve been in two real life book clubs. One was through my public library. We were all strangers and it was great. Since we didn’t know each other there was no gossip about this or that, we got straight to the book and talked and talked and talked until library closing time. However, the group wasn’t always the best at picking good books to read. The group was with friends and it was clear from the get go that the book was an excuse to get together and talk. In St Paul there is a nonprofit press/bookstore called Minnesota Women’s Press and they offer facilitated book groups that last for a year and sometimes the group will include a trip somewhere. These groups are not free though and I have never joined, no matter how tempting they sound. The Slaves are the best group I’ve ever read with. So many smart and thoughtful people.

  16. Pete – perhaps you might like to consider the Slaves? They are a wonderful group. I’m always impressed when people have been in several book clubs and just wish more opportunities had come my way. But the book blogging world is probably the biggest and best club ever. And thank you SO much for reading my chapters. I appreciate it more than I can say.

    Stefanie – I can see how that library group worked really well without the distraction of private lives to interrupt the book chat. And yes, a club that isn’t free would be foreclosed to me, too. Thank goodness for the Slaves! Edith Wharton finally arrived in the post on Friday so I will be ready in time for the next discussion – yay!

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