by Jas Faulkner
I joined my first book club in the mid-eighties. We were a loosely organized group of a dozen or so students from three different colleges in Memphis. We met at each other’s apartments and dorm rooms twice a month to discuss the book we’d chosen, what else we were reading and what some of us were writing (or painting or composing.) It should be noted that while we started out with the intention of being an all-inclusive group, the men who participated in the first two months eventually stopped coming. One friend who declined an invitation to return stated that he found the exercise too restrained.
“We’re reading books with explosive ideas and then we nod politely when some moron doesn’t get it.” My friend shook his head. “Without debate that fits the book, I just don’t get anything out of it. Do you? I mean, really. What do you get from sitting around and saying, ‘I respect your point of view about that, Jessica.’ It’s so…” he shuddered, “Granola crunchy or something.”
And then I pushed him down and told him that he was a boy and smelled funny.
Actually, he was wrong about that last part. Just the week before, a meeting devolved into a sodden, hilarious argument between two members over who was better, the Greek or Romans. Sources cited included “a, uh, well…a BIG BOOK!.”
That was the first and last time alcohol was brought to a book club meeting.
It is arguable that economics played a role in our dry state. None of us were particularly flush, so our meetings were fairly unadorned exercises on hospitality. Everyone showed up, sometimes with something to share, often with our beverage of choice, which might be anything from a paper cup of gas station coffee to a can of Megamarket bargain soda. Available food usually consisted of a brown bag of popcorn or a dish called “Rotel Dip” which resembled food, but most likely cause Michael Pollan to shed a single tear as he looked on, wondering what the hell was wrong with America’s future circa 1985.
I bring all of this up because the daughter of a friend was experiencing some difficulty with her own book group. She is slightly older than her Mom and I were when we participated in that club in Memphis almost thirty years ago. Some of the women in her group wanted to meet at a rather spendy restaurant while others insisted on elaborate spreads to start off the meeting.
“The books are almost beside the point,” she said.
Okay, let’s get real. It happens. At some point everyone picks a book that gets praised to the heavens and we end up either not reading it or absolutely hating it and the discussion goes in directions the writers of those book club guides never intended. When that happens you shake it off, take the book to the nearest UBS where it will find the right reader and move on to the next book.
Where this can go south is when every book feels like a chore. I have been part of groups that would pass up a book that might have been enjoyable for everyone in favor of titles we “ought to be reading.”
And here is where I commit an act of bookish heresy…
It’s not the end of the world if you neglect to read the latest NYTBR darling or anything by Jane Austen or that dense, dark thriller all the cool kids are carrying on the bus.
You know what else is okay?
- YA fiction
- a book some if not all of the group has read and loved
- graphic novels
- anything you think you might like
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for challenging books. I applaud books that promote intellectual and spiritual growth. Those books and the people who push them are great, but so is reading for fun. At some point, some of us forget that. Sometimes it’s at the hands of an instructor who has forgotten that the goal of teaching a book or the works of an author is to help their students get lost in the worlds between the covers. Sometimes real life presents so many challenges that it is easy to dismiss reading for pleasure as a respite from real life stress.
So what happened with Marisol and her reading club? They ended up splitting into two groups. The diner-outers went their own way while Marisol and a few others hooked up with a Southeast-based chain that offered them a cozy place to meet, a nice group discount, and hand access to coffee and whatever else they might want. It’s far more luxe than the greasy bags of popcorn her mother and I used to pass around the room while we watched the someone feverishly flip through pages to find the passage she was talking about, but the spirit is still there. The book is the thing, and that’s what counts.