Do you ever look at your calendar and see something scheduled in the not-too-distant future and get a tingle of anticipatory excitement and joy? Perhaps it’s a vacation you have planned, or an outing with a dear friend or family member. It could be an upcoming concert by an artist you follow or the latest sequel to a film you love. These things all give me a warm and fuzzy feeling, but as I close out 2019 and look toward 2020, that jolt of excitement I’m describing comes from anticipating book club night!
This isn’t a temporary love affair. I joined my first book club 23 years ago when I lived in Bend, Oregon. I still remember some of the titles we read in that first book club (Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris, Angel of Repose by Wallace Stegner), where we met, some of the conversations that unfolded and even seemingly insignificant details, like the dressy, low cut top my usually-jean-and-fleece-clad friend was wearing at one gathering. Book clubs have been a pleasant constant in my life ever since then, and each book club is as different and precious as the individuals that make it up.
I’ve been in book clubs with mainly outdoor enthusiasts (Bend, Oregon), a book club that should have owned up to being a drinking club (Santa Barbara), a more committed book club with literary aspirations and a penchant for delicious organic, home cooked meals (Santa Barbara round two), and international book clubs with members from different countries (The Hague and now Schagen, Netherlands).
It is a bit difficult to explain why book club matters so much to me. Of course I love reading. That seems to be a prerequisite. But I’m not a prolific reader. Many women in my book clubs–yes, I’m currently in two!–read upwards of 50-75 books per year compared to my 15-25 per year (that tally is including the romance novels I read on my Kindle in between book club books). Yet no one is shunning me for my low book count, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the experience of reading a novel on your own and then discussing it out loud with a group of friends who are all eager to share their reading experiences and insights.
It’s amazing what can occur during this process. First of all, you take an experience that, up until book club night, has been a solo, internal and somewhat intimate journey, and open it up into a group discussion. That, in and of itself, is an act of trust. After trust comes transformation. Literary characters that have undergone an initial transformation from the author’s idea, to a vision of a character in your mind, take a second, deeper breath during the discussion, as if they are coming to life:
“I was so upset when Edgar tried to call the ambulance and couldn’t say a word.”
“That was heart wrenching.”
“I know! right?”
It’s as if Edgar is a real person all the book club members are talking about that they know personally.
You discuss the characters, the plot, the writing, the cultural context, but there’s so much more. A novel is a bit like a painting; just as the meaning of a painting is often in the eye of the beholder, there are parts of a novel where the interpretation is in the eye of the reader. Our own life experiences and cultural backgrounds shape our reading experiences. In other words, a part of a novel that one member might consider total trash, could be a treasured game changer for another.
There’s also the power of dialogue. During the discussion, you feel something changing within you and within the group dynamic; new information, new ideas, holding onto your own perspective or watching it transform through the living and breathing act of discussion. I’ve seen book club discussions become catalysts to opening people up, where tough life experiences that have been under lock and key, not only come to the surface, but are courageously discussed. This is not just an anomaly. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. How can a work of fiction do that? It’s just a made up story, right? How can it bond people together, change your perspective and create such excitement and commitment?
Novels are stories and authors are storytellers. A group of book club members are the tribe around the campfire (roasting marshmallows) listening to the story unfold, gleaning the wisdom that lies therein, connecting to the life process.
Will every book gathering be a magical, transformative experience? No. Sometimes a novel doesn’t strike home or spark a good discussion. But what you do get is a lovely night out with people whom you enjoy and a chance to engage in dialogue and be in the real time presence of others. That in itself is worth the evening.
I sat down this evening to write a New Year’s Eve post and had no idea it would lead me to book club. yet I can’t think of anything more appropriate to close the chapter of one decade and open the chapter to a new one.
Is book club in your calendar for 2020? If so, what are you reading this year? If you’re not in a book club, perhaps 2020 is the year to join one. If you can’t find one to join, you could start your own!
Wishing everyone a glorious, environmentally friendly 2020 with lots of luscious, thought-provoking, humorous, passionate, thrilling and life-changing books.