Love books? Check. Love talking about books? Check. Love talking about books at a group meeting? Hmm, not so much. Everything about me screams book clubs. So why aren’t they my thing?
As long as there have been books, there have been people coming together to talk about them. From the Socratic Circles to the Bloomsbury Group, the history of book clubs runs deep. Today there are millions of them. Everywhere you look, someone is starting one, writing about them, waxing enthusiastically about the joy they brought to their life. There are book clubs just for men (believe it or not!), book clubs for true crime fiction, book clubs for science fiction fans, book clubs devoted solely to the works of Jane Austen. You name it, there's a book club somewhere talking about it.
And though I silently wondered if I was missing out, the question was answered by not joining one. But then I moved to a small town where I didn’t know anyone. The local book club seemed a perfect endeavour. I embraced it whole-heartedly and stayed faithful for a good two years.
But then things began to sour. More and more of the evening was taken up with gossip, catching up on children and husbands. The chosen book was crammed in toward the end as an afterthought. Certain participants didn’t like reading anything too troubling, too beyond mainstream culture, too challenging, too this, too that. More often than not, some of the women claimed they hadn’t read the book, but were looking for an excuse to “get out”. One woman said if she didn’t care for the book in the first four pages, her mind was made up, and she wouldn’t read any further.
Then there was the pressure of hosting, with “snacks” growing more and more elaborate. One time I went all out, buying expensive wine, preparing amazing appetizers, and generally stressing over whether my efforts were up to snuff. On the day of the meeting, a blizzard came to town, and almost everyone cancelled. I got drunk alone.
So it was with a. bit of relief, when I moved again. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy some of the women. In fact, I did keep in touch with a few for several years. And we did chose some very good books which I may not have found otherwise. But I wrestled with my lack of enthusiasm. Was I wrong in expecting - wanting - to talk about books at a book club?
I tried again a few years ago with a “reading group”. The idea was to pick a theme - writers from the prairies, immigrant experience, dystopian fiction, etc - and read whatever you wanted with that theme in mind. It could be a book, but it didn’t have to be. Instead, some chose a magazine piece, or non-fiction, or poetry. We had phenomenal discussions because you were exploring a theme rather than dissecting one particular book. It was a book club, without the book. And it took the pressure off having to read something you didn’t like. It was certainly a good experience for me and I only left the group because of time commitments. My job was crazy busy and I worked long hours at all times of the day and night.
Then last year I tried again. The women were lovely, and although I didn’t know them well, they were interesting and intelligent. The books they read were ones I had read on my own, so it would’ve been a very good fit. To be fair, I didn’t give it much time and when I left, I did so somewhat reluctantly. I found, again, I wanted to spend my time writing, and reading without the pressure of discussion.
I like to curl up and read whatever I want, whenever I want. Moreover, I don’t have to talk about it. I don’t have to follow someone’s rules, or make food, or prepare notes. I love to write, but it’s a solitary pursuit. Perhaps I’m a solitary reader too.
Maybe after all this time, I‘ve finally grown to view my “failure” with book clubs as something that I’ve come to terms with. It’s not them, it’s me. Because here’s the thing: book clubs are simply not for everyone. At the end of the day, I’m not a joiner. And that’s ok.
One of my favorite writers, Francine Prose says, "Book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people."
Perhaps someday I may join all the lovely people in book clubs. But for now, I’d love to know what you’re reading. Stay safe and thanks for continuing to support my solitary pursuits.In the meantime, happy reading!