The Perfect Book Club

Let me start with this: I’ve been burned by book clubs. This goes back more than a decade–alright, nearly two decades–when I tried my first (and only) book club and recommended Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper to a group of a dozen or so women. When we met back a month later, no one had thought the book was funny. Or moving. No one thought anything, really, except that the punctuation was weird.

And THAT was the last meeting I attended of THAT book club. Since then, of course, I’ve visited plenty of book clubs as a speaker and guest when they’re reading one of my books, and my experiences have been all over the place. It’s almost always enjoyable. Sometimes the book is just a prop, and everyone’s really there to drink wine and eat cheese. (I myself love both wine and cheese, although I don’t understand why we don’t just call those Wine and Cheese clubs.) But there are also plenty of groups where the conversation is complex and thoughtful and a mile-a-minute–where a bunch of readers are dying to voice all the thoughts and questions spinning in their heads after finishing a book.

That’s my idea of a book club. You leave college, and suddenly, when you finish a great book, there’s no one to talk about it with. There’s no circle of classmates or friends hanging out at midnight at a coffee shop. You’re left alone with all these questions–and probably answers, too–and that’s not nearly as much fun if you can’t share them. Last year I read The Age of Innocence for the first time, and I decided it was my new favorite book. I was giddy with the brilliance of it…and at the same time I was a little desperate to figure out What are the chances that someone I know has just finished reading this nearly century-old novel and is dying to talk about it? 

Last week I went to one of my favorite book clubs ever–five women sitting around a coffee table in Birmingham, Al. And I realized afterwards that what I loved most about the dynamic was that the readers approached Fierce Kingdom from an intellectual angle and a personal angle. So they might quote a passage from the book (I always LOVE quoting the text), and they might ask:

Why the zoo setting? How does that background work with the story? or Why does Kailynn act like she does? Is it bravery or obliviousness or something else?

I added my own favorite questions about the book: What’s the role of stories? What stories do Robbie, Joan, Lincoln, and Kailynn escape into–and how do they work differently for each character? 

And maybe something like:

There are beautiful things. Pay attention.Joan thinks these lines at the end of the book–how does that notion of paying attention play out in the story?

And we’d talk about the ins and outs of character and themes.

But then a passage might be a starting point for something more personal, like this assessment by Margaret mid-way through the book: “When they come to her desperate, empty, their parents are desperate and empty. She sees which direction they are headed, usually, and there is nothing she can do about it. Sometimes she has tried, and it is like huffing and puffing at a brick house.”

The woman who read those lines then talked about her own teaching experience and feeling that same sense of helplessness with students.

And these sorts of questions circled around, too:

–Is there a different kind of bond between mothers and their firstborn children? Is there a different kind of bond between mothers and sons than between mothers and daughters? (All of these women had sons.)

–What would you do in Joan’s place when it comes to the crying baby? Would that be different if you were alone than if you had your child with you?

–Are women always caretakers? Do you feel like you take care of everyone–husband, parents, children? Is that inborn or do we get shaped that way?

–Do you like Joan? (Everyone in this group did, by the way.) Do you think there’s a tendency to judge her differently than we would judge a man in the same situation?

To me, that overlap of personal experience and thoughtful reading–and the questions that come out of that–make a great book discussion. And a great book club.

Not that wine and cheese would go amiss.

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