How a Book Club can Make You a Better Reader
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Last month, when it was my turn to craft a shortlist for the monthly book club I’m a part of, I culled the six choices I’d considered during the month down to three: Jarett Kobek’s I Hate The Internet (the first self-published book to land a New York Times book review, which I read about it in the Guardian); Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter (I started following the author’s dreamy-looking writer life on Instagram after I met her close friend in Brooklyn last year); and Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love (Botton’s work always finds a way to resonate with me, and I loved his interview about the book with On Being) .
As you can probably tell, my choices tend to be trendy, of-the-current moment, and extensively influenced by the media I already consume. They are usually non-fiction, or fiction inspired heavily by the author’s real life or the cultural zeitgeist. In other words: I love memoir—I can more or less name the title and author of every feminist memoir that’s come out in the last five years—I hate fantasy or sci-fi, and reading classics feels like an effort for me.
I’m the first to admit that, as a journalist who spends an awful amount of time on Twitter, my reading echo chamber can get particularly echo-y. One of my favorite things about the book club is that the creative-millennial-feminist-memoir-liberal-leaning venn diagram that I naturally gravitate towards makes some of the other members’ stomachs churn.
For example, my last choice, How To Be A Person in The World, by New York magazine’s existential advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, was largely a dud at our monthly meeting; meanwhile, it was one of the most memorable books I read in 2016. When I floated the idea of reading Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, one member who works in book publishing said: “I don’t want to hear some writer complain about how hard it is to live in New York City.” Fair enough. (I did though—it’s an excellent book, if you’re into that sort of thing).
Therein lies the beauty of the book club: it challenges not only what you’re reading, but the way you read it too. In February, I finished Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims with a kind of “huh” feeling, certain that it was lacking the basic plot structure that one expects in exchange for getting through a futuristic novel. But most of my book club companions loved it. They said the meta narrative—a climate change-induced apocalypse that more or less spelled certain doom for a dysfunctional Scottish caravan park community—was the perfect foil to the rather petty interpersonal drama happening in the characters’ lives. Suddenly, I found myself judging it less harshly and saw a lack of plot as a clever device to convey the timeless theme of “life goes on”—even in a blizzardy, end-of-world setting.
There is a grand cultural tradition of attempting to suppress or minimize groups of mouthy and intelligent women who get together. As such, housemates, boyfriends, and outsiders pejoratively refer to our group as a “wine club.” And sure, there is wine, but without fail, the conversation at each meeting seeps from whatever our reading material is to politics, sex, and religion. Members of our group span political ideologies and religious affiliations, leading to discussions I might otherwise never have with a hand-picked group of friends.
While we generally tend to favor female authors and feminist themes—Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend have all been recent choices—the way each of us receives the feminist messages in those books differs wildly. Turns out, these differences of viewpoints are the perfect vein in which to discuss books. After all, we do not see things as they are, but as we are—and I think the same goes for books.
I was lucky enough to be invited into the long-existing book club I’m a part of, so I can’t take credit for the fact that it seems to work so well. However, I can share with you what I see as the basic tenets of a successful book club:
- First and foremost, get people to actually read the book. The best way to do this is to set realistic standards (no 450+ page tomes) and a reasonable amount of time between sessions (4-5 weeks).
- Encourage honesty when someone has failed to read it, but don’t condone repeat offenders. Also, double check the book is available on Kindle and don’t pick expensive just-released books only out in hardback.
- In addition, don’t let your most bookish member set the options every month; we get around this by electing a member to “pitch” two or three books at each session, which we then vote on. This means we get an array of genres and don’t fall into the reading habits of the most opinionated or literary person.
Lastly, discourage politeness, but foster tolerance. Whether we’re discussing dialogue structure, Brexit, or dating norms, the dinner party that accompanies each book club meeting is almost without exception the liveliest and loudest social occasion I attend all month. We disagree often, but such discourse should feel welcome. Done properly, and aided by wine, it should certainly never feel boring—and it’ll make you a better reader to boot.