I don’t do book clubs.
The “why” seemed obvious to me: as a literature professor, I spend much of my day discussing literature. And, to be honest, I’ve always felt impatient with the ways I imagined book clubs would treat the texts: rarely pointing out specific quotes or doing close readings – instead venturing off into personal anecdotes. In addition, it’s frustrating to merely skim a really good book, in a group, and pretend to penetrate its depths in a couple of boozy hours.
Some of my condescending attitude is mirrored in criticisms of Oprah’s book club. Despite the fact that this list includes Faulkner, Dickens, Andre Dubus and even Cormac McCarthy, there lingers a sexist assumption that Oprah readers consume “schmaltzy, one-dimensional” women’s novels, as Jonathan Franzen famously quipped. And as Lionel Shriver brilliantly argued, even sharp-edged, dark novels written by women are packaged to look like “chick lit.”
While I wasn’t put off by the selection of books, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to shake my professorial role. Worse, that I would obnoxiously direct the discussion. Far better to simply stay away, I reasoned.
But last summer I received an intriguing offer. A quietly brilliant younger friend announced she was forming “the unapologetically chill book group,” and announced that their first book would be 50 Shades of Grey, the soft-core S&M romance that began as a fan-fiction rewrite of Twilight. I then looked at the eclectic mix of other women invited: photographers, business owners, a local newscaster, a stay at home mom, a social worker and a creative director.
What would it be like to discuss a book marketed for solitary pleasure in a group of smart, self-actualized Midwestern women? Would they help me understand why so many women are fascinated by narratives of disempowerment?
Yes. They did. We had a great discussion. The food was fabulous. The wine, plentiful. And while the discussions were not as pointed or filled with literary critical terms as in most college classes, don’t we all value lifelong learning, reading beyond assignments, even a personal relationship to literature? I wonder how an adult mathematics club would be characterized, one in which participants discussed how calculus related to their everyday lives? Would it be seen as hopelessly lowbrow, or lauded for stimulating a wider interest in differential equations?
Still, after the first gathering, I told myself that I wouldn’t go back. I then read Cheryl Strayed’s account of hiking the Pacific Coast Trail alone, Wild. I loved the book (although her collection of “Dear Sugar” columns is even more brilliant) and really wanted to talk about the issues it raises: in what ways do we want adventurous travel to transform us? How does Strayed’s physically daunting journey help her deal with her mother’s death?
So I came back to the book club, this time offering to host. We shared our reactions to the book, our own fantasies of journeys that would heal us, transform us, make us tougher. I learned more about Strayed’s book. I learned a heck of a lot more about these women, some of whom were strangers to me. And, most of all, I learned that forming a community around literature is never a bad idea.