Jen­nifer Goes to Things & Does Stuff

Book learn­ing

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Jen­nifer Levin

One night at a bar, some friends and I re­al­ized we had all read the same novel as kids — The Girl With the

Sil­ver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts, about a book­worm named Katie who has tele­ki­netic pow­ers. Dis­cov­er­ing we had all de­voured this story of girl­hood iso­la­tion led us to other child­hood ti­tles that had stuck with us: Ellen Con­ford’s And This Is Laura, The Pin­balls by Betsy Byars, and Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly. The list went on and on, as did we, stay­ing past last call to keep talk­ing — about the char­ac­ters, plots, and all the mem­o­ries we had at­tached to them. Though I have never been part of an of­fi­cial book club, I imag­ine the con­ver­sa­tional magic that hap­pened that night is sim­i­lar to what goes on in such groups. I was re­cently asked to speak to two lo­cal book clubs about ways to dis­cuss what they read, which opened the door to writ­ing about the ex­pe­ri­ence and of­fer­ing some of the tips I gave to Pasatiempo read­ers at large.

Will Sh­walbe, au­thor of the wildly pop­u­lar mem­oir about read­ing with his ter­mi­nally ill mother, The End of Your Life Book Club (2012), and the fol­low-up, Books For Liv­ing (2016), has said that the most im­por­tant ques­tion we can ask is, “What are you read­ing?” It is a gen­tle over­ture of friend­ship yet a provoca­tive con­ver­sa­tional gam­bit — but at the book clubs I vis­ited, the mem­bers’ big­gest con­cern was how to steer the talk for max­i­mum par­tic­i­pa­tion when every­one there has read the same book.

My first sug­ges­tion for fa­cil­i­tat­ing dis­cus­sion takes a page from St. John’s Col­lege sem­i­nar ped­a­gogy, in which one per­son comes pre­pared with an “open­ing ques­tion” for the group — a ques­tion to which he or she does not know the an­swer. Book club-spe­cific ex­am­ples might run along the lines of why a char­ac­ter left her chil­dren when she so ob­vi­ously loved them or what the sig­nif­i­cance was of so many ref­er­ences to the color yel­low. An­other tac­tic comes from a for­mer col­lege creative-writ­ing work­shop teacher who re­quired every­one to con­trib­ute con­struc­tive crit­i­cism by stat­ing one big good thing, one big bad thing, one small good thing, and one small bad thing about the story at hand. While that is some­what spe­cific to crit­i­ciz­ing un­der­grad­u­ate manuscripts-in-progress, it can be ex­trap­o­lated upon to suit the depth and breadth of a novel, or ap­plied to stylis­tic choices made by writ­ers of mem­oir and other non­fic­tion forms.

As long as every­one stays re­spect­ful and has a sense of hu­mor, there is no rea­son there can’t be pas­sion­ate dis­agree­ment. Get­ting past “I just don’t like it” comes down to ar­tic­u­lat­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween your per­sonal read­ing pref­er­ences, what makes some­thing an in­ter­est­ing or worth­while story, and be­ing open­minded about why oth­ers might love a book that bores or up­sets you. You might be re­spond­ing to the prose style, the nar­ra­tive voice, or the spe­cific kinds of word choices an au­thor makes. Maybe you can’t stop pic­tur­ing the char­ac­ters in your child­hood home, and you don’t like the way they’re treat­ing it. As long as you have rea­sons and are will­ing to lis­ten, any way you are moved to talk about a book is valid. I once rec­om­mended The

Time Trav­eler’s Wife by Au­drey Nif­f­eneg­ger to a friend for her book club. Though my friend loved it, her book club did not be­cause time travel is not real — and that was the end of their dis­cus­sion. Some­one else I knew did not like the book be­cause she thought the main char­ac­ter had thrown her life away to wait for a man. Though the lat­ter ex­am­ple might be highly po­lit­i­cal, it en­gages the sub­stance of the novel, while the for­mer re­fuses to do so. (I read the book years ago and still find my­self mus­ing over the plot’s lo­gis­tics in the mid­dle of the night.)

Both book clubs I vis­ited were for women of re­tire­ment age. The first met through their church, and the sec­ond was more rag­tag — friends of friends who met be­cause of their love of read­ing. I then found out my neigh­bor, a forty-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher, is in a book club that has been meet­ing for close to 20 years, though she joined just a few years ago. The orig­i­nal mem­bers met through the bul­letin boards that used to hang in cafés and book­stores, and over the years they have be­come close friends. The struc­ture has be­come lax as of late; my neigh­bor ad­mit­ted she doesn’t al­ways read the books, but she loves hear­ing oth­ers talk about them over din­ner and a drink. The group’s founder, a speech ther­a­pist named Kim Davis, told me that they of­ten talk about what they are read­ing in­di­vid­u­ally rather than dis­cussing one book — and then she con­fessed she has joined a sec­ond, more fo­cused book club. Her new group ranges in age from forty to eighty, which Davis ap­pre­ci­ates for the di­ver­sity of per­spec­tives that brings.

Like many mod­ern book lovers, Davis is a mem­ber of the so­cial net­work Goodreads, where she keeps lists of what she plans to read. Though Davis uses it purely for or­ga­ni­za­tional pur­poses, the plat­form al­lows users to en­gage in dis­cus­sion top­ics and post short opin­ions and re­views. This av­enue can be use­ful for peo­ple who want to talk about books but are not in­clined to­ward in-per­son so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, while the face-to-face na­ture of lo­cal book clubs of­fers di­a­logue that weaves and moves and di­gresses to un­pre­dictable places. When it came up in one group that I had re­cently watched Gone With the Wind for the first time and hated it, the mem­bers re­acted with rau­cous shock, de­mand­ing to know what about it I had not loved — which led to a dis­cus­sion about cin­e­matic and lit­er­ary por­tray­als of slav­ery and wom­an­hood, and of the time pe­ri­ods and re­gions of the coun­try in which we’d grown up. I could have stayed there for hours. There was so much to talk about.

Au­thor Will Sh­walbe has said that the most im­por­tant ques­tion we can ask is, “What are you read­ing?”

Group of young women read­ing in the li­brary of a nor­mal school in Washington, D.C.; courtesy Li­brary of Con­gress

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