After I retired from college teaching, I needed a book group. I mean, really needed a book group—like most people need oxygen. As a professor, I was so accustomed to reading all types of texts and having a mostly attentive group of students to discuss our observations and opinions. I also had some key faculty members who would huddle in the hallway and share book goodies.
For the last year I’ve been reading a lot on my own and have been at a loss seeking a small group of like-minded bookworms. I found several groups in public libraries, bookstores and on line. I don’t usually think of myself as a high maintenance literary diva, but I am awfully hard to please in this department. Either the books didn’t interest me, the atmosphere was tense or loosey goosey, or nobody actually read the book. So I muddled on my own and tried to get satisfaction with online book groups; that wore thin quite soon. I missed the face to face contact and the ability to discuss a book in depth instead of several people jotting down random, spontaneous thoughts.
Several years ago I enjoyed five years of an absolutely fabulous, perfect book club. I think that experience spoiled me forever. We were a group of six to eight professional women who had delightfully eclectic and adventurous taste. Titles on our list included Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez), Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel), Collette (Collette), House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), Great Expectations (Dickens) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith). There were many more, one each month, but I most loved that these books made me think. I got so much more out of them by being able to talk about them.
The problem with this perfect book group is that it changed. Members became very interested in having multi-course meals to coordinate with the book. Some tried to duplicate recipes mentioned in the texts. Several had our monthly meetings catered, complete with the catering truck parked outside and cloth linens. Most upsetting to me, however, was that fewer and fewer members were actually reading and discussing the book. Instead, there was a lot of talk about kids, decorating, shopping, tennis, spouses, vacations… get the point? It evolved into a different kind of social get together, and the books eventually disappeared. Nobody else complained, so I figured I was odd man out.
Until now… I found a new book group, and I’m so grateful and excited about it. Yes, you could say I’m giddy about the find. Ironically, it was all by accident. After dinner at a local restaurant, my husband and I were strolling through downtown Falmouth, and we wandered into an exquisite children’s bookstore, Eight Cousins. Because the other full size independent bookstore closed its doors a few years ago, Eight Cousins started to carry a small assortment of non-children books. I noticed one of my favorite books in the world on their shelves (Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close—not the movie!!) and started talking to the salesperson about it. She mentioned that it was the topic of their book group, and the group discussion was amazing. All of this year’s book group selections were connected to September 11. I felt like a schoolgirl and asked what one had to do in order to be invited into this group. She said, “Read the book and come talk about it on the second Tuesday of the month.” Honest to God, I skipped out the store with the next book under my arm: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.
The following Tuesday about eight women showed up, sat in a circle towards the rear of the store, and talked about the book for a couple of hours. We noticed that the three main characters reacted quite differently to the trauma of September 11 in New York City. Members had selected specific parts of the book that merited discussion. We talked about the author’s use of language and whether or not the characters were authentic. The group compared and contrasted it to Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close. It was enlightening, satisfying and lots of fun.
The book for next month is Dom DeLillo’s Falling Man. So far, I’m half way through it and can’t put it down. I’m not quite sure where it’s going, but I’m there for the ride. I’ll let you know what I think when I finish it. I’d love to hear about what you’re reading and what you think of book groups. In the meantime, walk quietly and carry a big book.