Follow by Email

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Little Hell of Book Clubs

Picture this: several women gathered at a friend's home, drinking wine and eating snacks. Good conversation, lots of laughter. Then, someone says, "We'd better talk about the book." No one actually groans, but there is a shift in the room and the give and take atmosphere of a moment earlier transforms into an artificial encounter. I have a theory about this phenomenon, but before I begin to posit, let me share a little bit about my recent reading.

My last post centered on a book series I was reading featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. I love talking about books with others, particularly because I hear about good books I would not ordinarily have come across. Every Christmas, my sister Nancy gives me a stack of books she has enjoyed during the year and it is always one of my favorite gifts. This year the first in Louise Penny's Gamache series was among them, as well as Kindred  by Octavia Butler (one of the few African American  women known for science fiction) and Our Lady of the Forest by David Guterson.

In Kindred, Octavia Butler explores slavery using the device of time travel. Set in 1974, Dana, the novel's African American protagonist, is suddenly transported to early 19th Century Maryland just in time to save young Rufus, a plantation owner's son. No gratitude is expressed. She is considered a slave and appropriated by the plantation owner. Everything about her, from her jeans to the ability to read and write, is suspicious. Not surprisingly, Dana runs afoul of the repressive system and is subject to the whip. In a series of trips through time, she comes to understand that the boy Rufus is her own ancestor. Whenever his life is in danger, she finds herself transported to old Maryland. She only returns to the 20th Century when her own life is threatened, and often she returns broken and bleeding. For Dana (and for me) the biggest revelation is how easily she slips into behaving like a slave, watching her words, keeping her head down and her heart numb. Caring is just too dangerous.

I've just started Our Lady of the Forest, an account of a young homeless girl's visions of the Virgin Mary. Having been raised Catholic in the 50s and 60s, it's a subject that interests me. (I also have to confess that as a morbidly good child, my night-time fear was just such a visitation -- with Mary in the role of the boogieman. I remember saying my prayers and adding a petition that I not be visited by any holy spectres.)So far the book is fine, but I'm having difficulty relating to the young heroine who is definitely not as saintly as I was at a similar age. Even though the premise is interesting, this is not a book I would have chosen, primarily because the last book I read by Guterson, East of the Mountains, was such a disappointment.

Given my love for books, you might wonder why I am not in a book club, why, in fact, I hate them, and why I will make up and stick to any absurd excuse that pops into my head to avoid them. I've tried several and concluded that there are few social gatherings that promise so much and deliver so little. This is not the fault of the book or the club's members.

Above, I said I love talking about books, so what is it about a book club that sends me reeling toward the gin? Well, let's see: the discussion is not about books. It is about book. The discussion is often not a  real discussion, rather a painful re-enactment of a high school or college literature class. You have only to look at the book club discussion guide at the end of any current book (this is a recent phenomenon) and you'll immediately see the academic bent assumed even by the publisher. For example, the discussion guide at the back of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak asks: What is ironic about Liesel's obsession with stealing books? Discuss other uses of irony in the novel. Ack! That's not a real question. That's a school question. And if you recall discussions in literature classes, you'll remember the long silences, nodding heads, the studied comments of the one or two who actually participated. This happened both when I was a student and when I was a teacher. It's not that bad in a book club, but there is wine, after all.

My sister belongs to a book club that seems to work for her, and I can see why. Everyone in the club brings a different book, one that they have read recently, don't want back and would recommend. Each member says something about the book -- why it's interesting, what it meant to them personally, what it reminded them of, why it was challenging, how it's connected to daily life. It's personal and inviting, relaxed. Not only that, but every member hears about several books they might want to read, rather than one they everyone has already read.

That's what I did when I wrote about my recent reading at the beginning of this blog. I made a few comments about books, and it could be that one of you will want to read  one of them. I do realize that many of you probably love your book club, but I'd like to suggest that you try the approach that my sister's club does at least once -- and see how the conversation goes. You can bring any book you've enjoyed, and say what you want. If you're inclined to talk about irony, that's fine, but don't expect everyone to. I think you'll enjoy it.

Just one more thing -- how about trying this in schools? If kids weren't reading, bookstores wouldn't have young adult sections. Kids may not be reading what's assigned, but could it be that they aren't interested and find the discussions tedious. The truth is that many teachers allowed their students to choose their own reading material and share it with their classmates in the days before standardized tests became the point of reading. Nancie Atwell's groundbreaking book, In the Middle, describes what happened in her classroom when students partnered in their own literacy. That's another book I'd recommend. When I talk to teachers about this approach they always say, "How will I know the students have really read the book?" or "What if they have questions I can't answer?" Well, I give a 4-hour workshop on this which no one wants me to repeat here, but here are a couple of points:

You'll notice that I talked about books that not every one had read, and I don't think any of you suspected that I hadn't really read them. That's because I could talk about them. I had things to say that made sense. And if anyone had asked a question -- a real question, not a school question -- I could have responded: Why did you choose this book? What made you keep wanting to read? It reminds me of some other books I've read -- have you ever tried [author X]? These are questions students can answer, questions that will reveal a great deal about their understanding of text. Not only that, but they will hear about 20-some other books they might enjoy. Give it a chance and see what happens to discussion.


  1. I didn't like East of the Mountains either although the descriptions of the land around the Columbia were nice. Discussion questions regarding books always remind me of "Think and Do" books in Grades 2-5. Horrible.

  2. When I got to the part where his dogs were mauled by a pack of vicious Irish Wolfhounds, he lost all credibility. No explanation of how anyone got them off the couch!