Monday, April 29, 2019

Anatomy of a Book Club

Good Monday morning.

I address you today for the fifth time this month. I'm just pointing that out because April has hung around forever it seems. April is not my favorite month. I sneeze a lot, & by the end of April it's already too hot for me. I know it won't be cold again in Louisiana until possibly November, & college football is still months & months away.

The older I get, the more I think about the excessive heat in Louisiana during the summer. I guess with age comes a hyper-focus on weather; I know in my younger years I don't recall this much mental anguish over impending heat. What makes it bearable, of course, is the lack of school & structure. In Louisiana it is too hot to do much in the months of June, July, & August, & so I make it my goal not to do much, at least not much that requires blow-drying my hair or wearing makeup that just melts off anyway. 

Okay, sorry for that extended whine about the weather. I am just girding myself for it, I suppose. We're routinely hitting over eighty degrees lately (& that is too hot for me), & I know it's only a hint of the heat that is to come. 

Last week I shared a blog titled "The Circles of the World" (which you can find - - - > here if you missed it) in which I discuss Notre Dame (the cathedral) & my Papaw & the ways in which they are similar. There are also a handful of Easter-related photos in that blog. 

Book club was Friday night. Our April book was Up to This Pointe by Jennifer Longo.

It's a Young Adult book about a teen girl, Harper, whose dream is to dance professionally with the San Francisco Ballet. The book is a classic example of a book that begins slowly, but if you keep reading there is a beautiful ending, & you are rewarded for your patience. The book just slowly gets better & better; it almost creeps up on you. Probably my favorite thing about the book is that it juxtaposes two settings that are foreign to most people, namely a ballerina's world & Antarctica. The setting alternates from chapter to chapter. You jump from the present (set in Antarctica) to the past, which is set in San Francisco. It is well written, & the shifting did not faze me at all while reading. As the book unfolds you find yourself racing to the end because you know the past & present are about to merge.

We had a lovely time Friday evening. We actually had reservations (we usually aren't this fancy) on the patio at a local restaurant, & the weather was perfect (see, I can say positive things about the weather). Here we are:

When I returned home Friday night I saw my sister had shared this article on our group's Facebook page. Titled, "13 Reasons Why Book Clubs Are Saving the World," the content of this article, coupled with somewhat frequent inquiries about book club, have prompted me to spend the remainder of this post putting together a few thoughts about how to start a book club . . . since apparently they are saving the world. Take a minute to scroll through the article. It's a short read, & it highlights many of the reasons I love my book club.

I am asked questions about book club more often than you might imagine. Can I join? Do you really read one book a month? The first question is not mine alone to answer, & I'll explain more about that momentarily. The second question is easier to answer: Yes, yes we do read at least one book a month, though at times we've read more than one book in a month.

I've compiled an alliterative list (because of course) of things to consider if you desire to join or form a book club. Before running down that list, I have to tell you that you need to think about yourself first. It's true. Forming or joining a book club requires you to do some serious self assessment. You may think it sounds glamorous to be part of a book club, & I mean it totally is, but do you read? Do you read books? If you do not now read books with any regularity then joining or attempting to form a book club is unlikely to change that. The social lure of a book club is enticing to many, but a book club is, as the name suggests, a club for people who read books. That is the first & most basic requirement. 

If you are not a person who reads books, well, there are so many things I could say to you right now, but I'll simply encourage you to change that. Set a goal for yourself to read a book a month for the next six months. Even if it's a mindless romance, it will get you reading, & you will see that it is certainly possible for you read a book a month. If you have no idea where to begin, let me know; I will supply you with some titles.

If you are a reader, & you frequently find yourself frustrated because you want to discuss what you've read with others, then you may well be ready for a book club. Here are things to consider. 

(1) Company 

Do you have friends or even mere acquaintances who read books? Don't just ask your best friend if she wants to start a book club if she doesn't read. Usually readers know other readers because readers tend to gravitate toward one another. If you feel you are ready to make the leap, it's crucial to find others who are as well. The people with whom you're closest may not fit the bill, & that is fine. 

In my opinion you need four to five regular, dedicated members. You need no more than ten who attend regularly. Why? If the goal is to have an interesting discussion of what you've all read, when the numbers grow too large discussion becomes chaotic & frustrating. Based on my experience as a graduate student as well as my experience teaching AP literature, eight is an ideal number for discussion. 

(2) Commitment

Once you've zeroed in on a handful of serious readers, you all need to discuss how much of a commitment you're willing to make. Book club is BOOK club. What sets it apart from other gatherings or random groups of friends is that you all agree to read a book & meet to discuss it, & you repeat this process with some regularity.

We read a book a month. The exception to that is if we are reading a series. For example, we took one summer, one magical summer, & read The Harry Potter series. We read two to three books a month during June, July, & August of that year. Most book clubs read a book a month, but there are no set rules. Everyone needs to think about the time commitment of not only getting the reading done but also of carving out a few hours one night to meet & discuss the reading. 

(3) Captain  

Someone needs to lead. Even with a small group of four or five it is best that someone be the final arbiter if a final decision cannot be reached concerning what to read or where & when to meet. A good captain is willing to be decisive when necessary but is also not routinely overly bossy.

(4) Communication  

All of you need to be able to converse with one another in some way outside of the time you spend together at book club. The least appealing option, in my opinion, is a group text, but that would work, I suppose. We have a Facebook page that works well. It's a closed group, & it is on this page that we always decide on a date for our monthly meeting as well as a place we'll meet to eat & chat. This also allows us to share book-related memes, links, & general thoughts with the group. This shared space alleviates the captain of the sole responsibility of contacting everyone in the group. 

Our common page also allows us to keep a posted record of what we've read every year since early 2012. 

(5) Community Boundaries

You need a few basic guidelines covering a variety of issues that will arise as the life of the club unfolds. There needs to be a discussion among the original members about (1) how you will decide what will be read, (2) what, if any, books or specific subjects are off-limits for the club, (3) how you'll address possible new members, & (4) how often you will meet.

For the last several years my book club has held our December meeting in a member's home. We discuss that month's book, & we also have a book exchange. From the books exchanged we begin to build a list of books to be read the following year. It's a good way to encourage everyone to contribute at least one title to the list of what we'll read in the year ahead, & everyone goes home with a new book in hand.

There are any number of ways to decide on a book list. For 2020 we are considering "reading around the world," which means we may attempt to select books that are set in a variety of locales around the globe. I recommend that at a minimum you balance a fiction-heavy list with a couple of works of nonfiction, or vice versa. I am a fiction gal, but every work of nonfiction we've read for book club has been excellent, thought-provoking, & certainly something I would have never read were it not on the book club list.

We have a read a wide variety of books over the years. We read fiction & nonfiction. We read the classics, & we read contemporary stuff. We read young adult books, & we read gritty adult stuff addressing the whole spectrum of human experience.

It is my opinion that grown adults should not limit what they consider reading, especially when you're trying to put together a list of books to be read by a group. If you have personal rules for yourself such as I don't read books with foul language in them or I only read Christian fiction, please do not bind those rules on a book club, & might I suggest you reconsider these rules because you are banning from your life & your mind some of the most wonderful works of literature. Even the Bible contains scenes that would be cut from Christian fiction novels.

Part of the wonder & joy of book club is that you will read books you would have otherwise never considered. Don't insist on dominating the list of what will be read. I promise you this will not only irritate the other members of the group, but it will defeat one of the primary purposes of a book club, which is to expose yourself to new books, new ideas, & listen to others' thoughts about the book.

At the conclusion of one of the letters in Dear Miss Moreau (I cannot recall if it's a letter Edie writes Dr. Foster or vice versa . . . sad, I know, because I wrote it, but I am getting old) . . . anyway, one of them concludes a letter with the line of Lord Byron's I've quoted above:

Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.

I am going to suggest that book club is also a means by which you can combine delightful solitude with good company. Reading is a solitary activity even if you're attempting to read surrounded by people. In your head you are somewhere else. In your head, you are falling in love right alongside a teenage girl, or crawling through a ditch during wartime, or sitting at an ailing parent's bedside. You are freezing & starving inside Leningrad as Hitler's army closes in & cuts off supply lines. Reading is an intensely personal experience, but as with most intensely personal experiences, ultimately we want to discuss them. We want to share the feelings we felt, & we want to see if others felt the same way as they traversed the same text we did. 

Book club membership is a commitment; it has to be if you truly desire to fully reap the benefits of membership. Book club elevates the reading experience in a way that is absolutely delightful for me. It builds community & fosters thoughtful conversation (about the books read but, yes, also about life) at a time when we are all increasingly isolated from one another physically, living our life in our cars, sitting in front of a screen at work & at home, our phone in our hand too often. Too many of us are disengaged both mentally & physically. Face-to-face conversations with other readers are, along with coffee, my drug of choice.

I hope something I've said today is useful or encouraging to you. Are book clubs forming en masse across this nation? The article I've linked seems to suggest this is the case. I think that would be a wonderful thing. We are losing our social skills along with our desire & ability to write longhand letters as we retreat behind our phones & email & other technology that allows us to communicate while remaining in our own isolated world. We are losing our patience to read long, thoughtful novels like those Miss Austen penned because we're accustomed to short tweets & blurbs on Facebook. I can think of no better way to reverse these damaging trends than the formation of book clubs, a club that, by its definition, encourages both reading & thoughtful, interactive discussion. We could all use more of both.

I hope you have a great week. Pick up a book. Don't resign yourself to being a person who does not read, & certainly do not boast about this. Start today. It could quite possibly change your life.

I shall return, the Lord willing, in the month of May to continue moaning about the weather & discuss end-of-year school chaos.


No comments:

Post a Comment