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Who Loves Book Clubs?

December 6, 2014

A few days ago I attended my first book club meeting. I’ve always loved the idea of people reading books together. I used to love reading books with my classmates and friends in school, sometimes jumping ahead of the class assignments because the story was so compelling, frequently gaining great perspectives in the conversations in class as we discussed each chapter. It seemed so much more intense than the competition my sister Judy and I shared in elementary school, where we raced each other to the end of our Nancy Drew mysteries to see who could finish first.

So you’d think I’d have joined a book club a long time ago. Maybe I’m a bit of a snob, wanting to avoid the bestsellers, “chic lit,” or mundane choices so many book clubs seem to select. It’s probably more that I didn’t want to add stress to my personal life by reading on any schedule but my own, and, truth be told, I do like picking my own books to read; the jumps from Civil War to E. R. R. Martin to William Faulkner can lead to some fascinating coincidences and parallels.

Nevertheless, I’m on a drive to get out of the house and meet more people, learn new things, yada yada. So off I went to the gathering last Wednesday, organized by a local bookshop called Buffalo Street Books. It was pretty much what I expected: several people who’d read the book gathered for an hour or so to talk about it. The participants, I noticed, represented several types that readers often fall into. The moderator was the bookstore owner, an articulate and well-read person, not discernibly (from what I could tell) well versed in literary terms yet aware of common tropes and themes. Two younger women, I think, are English teachers, probably of middle-school students, and full of enthusiasm for the experience of reading, if barely articulate about literature and how to describe their enthusiasms. The one man in the group was the resident bombastic know-it-all, someone who publishes a little and boasts a lot about the authors he’s met. And the last woman struck me as a mix of the others, but in even measure and therefore the most interesting to me: enthusiastic about reading, articulate and well-educated, aware of back stories of authors (sometimes important in fiction discussions), and perceptive about themes, symbolism, and metaphors. She’s why I will return for next month’s discussion.

I had decided to attend without having read the book because, well, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? The book they’d all read in November was Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is a slim little novel that sounds delightful. Everyone in the group liked it very much, although one woman who admitted she’s not much into fantasy or magical stories seemed confused about several elements. Having read a few Gaiman titles myself, I expect I’ll enjoy this one, too. And now that the awkwardness of not being able to participate in the discussion is over, I know what our next book is and can read it by early January to join in the talk.

I have to admit that I’m not excited about the selection (The Good Lord Bird by James McBride), mostly because I hated the author’s memoir, The Color of Water. Yet I will remain optimistic, if only because this month’s book is fiction (a requirement for the group) and because it won the National Book Award. (I tend to read prize-winning books because, in my experience, they really are better than a lot of other stuff out there.) Besides, the group also selected February’s book, which sounds utterly fascinating: Hild by Nicola Griffith.

What kind of book club experiences have you had? What should I expect in the coming months?

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