Why I’m in a Book Club, Part 1

Back in 1993, I created my first book recommendation list—a rundown of the books I’d read and enjoyed throughout the year. At the time, I was working at WTTW (the local public TV station) and my commute on the El gave me two hours of reading time a day. I went through a lot of books back then and friends would often ask for recommendations. So, on a whim, I created a “best of” book list to include with my holiday cards. The response was terrific and my personal literary tradition was born. This blog came about directly from this annual list. My 2008 book list will hit the mail next week.

In 1992, the year before my first book list, I joined a reading group that had just been formed by a group of friends. Seventeen years later, we’re still together. The core group remains the same, while others have come and gone, a few have moved away, and one was kindly asked to leave. Over the years, we’ve celebrated marriages, births, and new homes together. We’ve even risked the cohesion of our group by occasionally allowing spouses and fathers to join the discussion. I suspect in a few years, we may have our first mother-daughter pair in the mix.

The reason I bring all this up is an email I received from my friend Madeline, who witnessed my book mania first-hand when we worked together at WTTW. After years of reading this blog, she now claims I’ve worn her down—she’s joined a book group of her own. Mad had a number of questions about my book club experience, which I’ve expanded upon here. It’s the perfect subject for a book blog post.

Why do you like being in a book club?

I like to think that book club helps me to be a better, more critical reader. My tendency is to read for character and plot. Reading more critically, with discussion in mind, forces me to slow down and think about a book in a different way. Hopefully, this deeper-than-surface-level reading finds its way into everything I read.

I also appreciate that book club introduces me (for better or for worse) to books, authors, and genres I otherwise wouldn’t have read. Sure, science fiction is still a struggle, but without book club pushing me, I probably wouldn’t have read Virginia Woolf, Norman Mailer, or Sir Walter Scott—all of which I loved. And before my book club meeting back in August of 1993, I’d never heard of Wallace Stegner, who’s now one of my favorite authors.

Book club has also gotten me to crack open books from my own shelves that have been waiting for years to be read. There’s nothing like a book club deadline to get you to finally sit down one winter with Moby-Dickwhich I also loved. And the discussion we had was one of our best.

Lastly, even if I don’t enjoy reading the book, I always enjoy the discussion. It’s not unusual for me to come away from these gatherings with a greater appreciation and understanding of the book, even if I still wouldn’t recommend it personally.

Life’s too short. Why would you spend it reading a book you don’t like?

If book club selections were the only books I ever read, yeah, I wouldn’t want someone else telling me what to read. Lucky for me, I make plenty of time for reading. It’s rare that book club will select a book I have zero interest in and sometimes when that happens, I’m pleasantly surprised. (Felicia’s Journey and The Known World come to mind.) And yeah, occasionally we’ll read a book that I really don’t like. The consolation there is that I’m guaranteed we’ll have a great discussion.

Do you always finish the book club book?

No, because life’s too short to read a book you’re really not enjoying. Years ago, I got over feeling like I had to finish every book I started. My personal rule of thumb is I’ll stick with a book I don’t like for 50 pages. If by then I’m still hatin’ on the book, I’ll put it down and move on. I make more of an effort with book club books (where my page limit is 100) but I usually stick it out to the end. There have been a few books I just couldn’t get through. Brick Lane by Monica Ali, Ghandi’s Truth by Erik Eriksen, and Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz were all quitters for me.

Seventeen years and going strong, what do you think is the key to your book club’s success?

That’s easy—it’s the people. I’m lucky to be in a group that’s committed to the purpose of reading and talking about books. Sure, we begin and end each meeting with conversation, catching up with each other and chatting about current events, movies we’ve seen, and, of course, other books we’ve read, but the majority of the time we’re talking about the book.

Next post: How we choose books for discussion, quirks and traditions, and the importance of food.


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