The Many Meanings of The Book Club

For those of you who missed last time, I’ve started a monthly column where I examine how we read. Not what we read, necessarily, or why we read it, but how we read it.

Last month I discussed e-readers vs. good old paper-glue-and-ink books. This month, I’d like to take a look at the phenomenon of the book club.

I joined my first book club this summer. It was convened online, in a Facebook group, a smattering of 20-25 kids who had all gone to my high school, who all agreed to sit down and read Infinite Jest one summer. I was asked to participate because I had written a graduate thesis on Infinite Jest. (Yes, I am this person. I was the crabby graduate student who wrote a thesis on Infinite Jest. Right out of central casting. Though I didn’t smoke cigarettes or wear horn-rimmed glasses, you can imagine me doing so if you’d like.)

Anyway, yes. I joined the book club. It started in good cheer, with everyone contributing to the little group wall, keeping up with the reading, making jokes, asking questions, sharing links. I lurked in the background, not wanting to write too much, partly because I wasn’t quite sure what to say and mostly because I was too lazy to go back and read the book for an eighth time, and I was too lazy to look in the book and see how far everyone had read, and try to remember what had/had not been revealed so far. I was not interested in being Mr. Spoiler. Even if I did know where they were, the swirling form of the novel would make it all but impossible for me not to reveal something, so I bagged it.

Within two weeks we’d lost about half our readers. Within a month there were probably five left. Within six weeks, it was down to three.  The three of us had  a cheery discussion about the end of the book, and eventually the group disintegrated.

I’ll be the first to admit these probably weren’t the right circumstances in which to try a book club for the first time. Reading a monstrously difficult novel, communicating solely over the interwebs…it was a difficult task to keep this book club together.

So, the question still remains to me: why do people do these things? What is the appeal of the book club? I’ve never been particularly interested in joining one, and to be honest, after this experience, I wasn’t seeking a book club out. So why join one?

I asked around. A friend of mine told me that a big reason she joined book clubs was because they forced her to read. I think this is key, if not pretty obvious. People are more likely to do something if there’s an obligation to do it. You’re more likely to read 50 pages if you know you’re expected to, and there’s the potential for embarrassment if you don’t. You wouldn’t read otherwise, so a book club is the impetus to get you to turn the pages, if only out of guilt, the fear that you’ll show up to the book club and have nothing to say to anyone.

What sucks about that mode of thinking (I believe, anyway) is that in this scenario reading is made equivalent with something that’s good for you, but something you still have to force yourself to do. Like working out. Or taking fish oil.

This sucks. Reading should not be considered something you have to force yourself to do.

At the risk of sounding like a lame third grade teacher, reading should be fun. I do not equate reading with working out; I equate it with entertainment. (Unless of course I have to review some tawdry novel for work, in which case I equate reading to torture.) I try to show this to other people, too. I want them to understand that reading is fun, and should be fun. Whenever I have taught, I make sure to explain to my students my own theory of reading, which is: if I don’t like something, I just put it down and don’t read it. (Except, I have to explain, the books I am teaching. Those they have to read. It’s after class they get to put the books down they don’t like.) I long ago stopped buying books I should read and instead now buy books I want to read.

This sounds simple. I promise you it’s not. For some reason, in education especially, there’s a huge narrative to our kids that we should read because it’s good for us. The same argument is made for eating vegetables, you might remember.

Well, fuck that. I never liked vegetables because growing up I was taught eating vegetables were good for me. Then, when I was 14, I tried Brussels sprouts roasted in brown butter and garlic and realized that I wanted to eat vegetables not because they were good for me but rather because they tasted good. They made me happy.

Our narrative with reading should be the same. Reading is fun. We need to start adjusting our narrative in regards to reading.

Of course, there are people who read just fine, and like book clubs because they are fun. Another friend of mine told me that book clubs gave her a chance to have wonderful academic discussions, and maybe I should just chill with the equating-book-clubs-with-the-problematic-narratives-regarding-reading-and-the-equation-with-vegetables horseshit I was just spewing on about.

She was, of course, totally right. Book clubs are not sinister. They can be fun. They can recreate the joys that can only be found in a classroom, those exciting moments when ideas are bouncing around a group of smart people who all have things to share, arguments to make, a group mission to add a greater depth of understanding and meaning.

Book clubs are also a way for adults to strive after that great Dream of the Liberal Arts—that hearing from people with different “experiences” can add meaning to a piece of art. Books mean different things to different people. By hearing about those different perspectives, it can (in theory) expand one’s mind. This is all well and good.

Or maybe it’s simpler than all that. Maybe it’s just about getting together with a good group of people in a warm apartment, sprawled out on couches, having a discussion. This is fine. Even beautiful, in a way. And maybe that’s what I’m missing; what I need to find. I can find a group of people who want to get together and drink wine and have something to talk about, this club a gorgeous escape from the mundane tics of normal conversation, the how’s the weather, the gossip, the did you hear so-and-so did what, and instead to come together just crack open a book and do my best to connect with someone else over something, well, real, even if that thing is a story written down by a person I will probably never meet.

2 replies
  1. avatar
    Tod says:

    Nathan: Could we use the image you’ve produced with your article for a blurb in our free library newsletter to announce the start of a book club?
    Tod Owens

    • avatar
      Amy Edelman says:

      Hi Tod,

      I actually chose the image, but I’m not sure where I found it or if you’d need permission to use.




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