Friday, January 25, 2013

In Praise of Book Clubs

I began a book club yesterday.

My mother began a book club when I was sixteen or seventeen. It was a small group, perhaps ten or twelve of us at most, ladies from our church and a few of their daughters. We began with Jane Austen, meeting one evening a month at our house to drink tea and eat scones or sandwiches or cake and discuss Elizabeth and Jane, Elinor and Marianne, Catherine, Emma, Anne, and Fanny. Everyone brought their own teacups. My brother and father would vanish downstairs, taking the dog with them, for this was a club for ladies only, and our living room was the laboratory in which we dissected the lives, thoughts, actions, and culture of these fictional yet inimitably alive Austen heroines. We gossiped about the outrageous faux pas of Mrs. Bennet, shuddered over the oiliness of Mr. Collins and the buffoonery of Sir Walter, and cheered the real gentlemen like Mr. Knightley and Captain Wentworth.  And when there were no more Austen novels to read, with a bit of sadness we bid them goodbye, then turned our attention eagerly to other classics, both old and new: Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Brideshead Revisited, Precious Bane, Dorothy Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (including one of the best novels ever written, Gaudy Night), and Till We Have Faces. When the club ended, several years later, it ended with Gilead, which I confess I flew through so quickly I hardly remembered it and did not appreciate it, but I re-read it a few months ago to make up for it.

I confess I am a bit nostalgic for those evenings, for the tea and cake, the books, the cosy feeling of community that develops when we are all interested in the same book. That's why I started a book club now: or rather partly why, because nostalgia aside, we all have something to learn from talking about books. Seventeen is an age of overconfidence and doubt, of girlhood tripping over its feet towards the not-so-distant goal of womanhood. To read enduring classics, to be allowed to express my thoughts and feelings about them, and then listen to the thoughts and feelings of women of different ages– most close to my mother's age, some younger, some a little older– in an environment that was safe, where my opinion was not less valid because I was inexperienced, mature in some ways but immature in others, was the kind of experience I wish everyone was able to have. Where other seventeen year olds so often have teachers telling them what to think, I got to have a community of women who gave me a safe space in which to think and process what the classics had to say to me.

To speak quite bluntly, I learned more about literature and how literature relates to life during that book club than I did in any of my lit classes in college. I remember coming home from my first couple weeks of a nineteenth-century Brit-Lit class at UCCS, disappointed and ranting to my mother because none of my fellow students knew how to discuss the stories and poems and books we were reading. I had to ration out my comments carefully, stingily, the way butter was rationed during the World Wars, because otherwise I knew I would, in my enthusiasm, apply my comments too liberally, at every silence in the room after the professor asked a question, the way butter melts into every crack in the toast. It is a rare event that I not have an opinion on something, and even rarer that I not have something to say about anything in writing. I learned to keep my eyes fixed on the page, squirming in the agony of quiet that reverberated after Dr. Taylor asked us what we thought about Tennyson, or Byron, or Shelley, mentally pleading with my classmates: surely someone had something to say! And then, just before the silence became desperate, I would speak, choking a little, wondering if they hated me because I was usually the one to break the silence. But I did it for Dr. Taylor's sake too, not just for my own: she was a kind teacher, very gentle, very accommodating. She deserved better than the silence that came after so many of her questions. "It's all right," I wanted to explain to her, so many times. "They don't mean it personally. They've just never been in a book club before."

And so if I ever, against my better judgment, imagine myself an English teacher, (something the Pilot will laugh at me for admitting since I have been nothing if not vocal in my rejection of that career) it is really as the facilitator of a book club that I picture myself, and only the students who are as eager and interested in good books as I am will be allowed to be in my classes, and we will take turns to bring refreshments, and sit in a library in a circle of overstuffed chairs instead of a classroom, and we will argue and discuss and gossip and scrutinize the books, but it will be with the friendliest of spirits towards the books, knowing that there are things to be learned from books, things to be applied, and that when you talk about a book with someone else you're likely to learn even more from it than if you read it in solitude.

So perhaps the book club here in Phoenix is a step towards that imagining, though I don't profess to be a teacher, merely the organizer, the hostess, and, of course, the Jane Austen fan. History has a way of repeating itself, and Jane's novels are what my friends and I are going to spend the next six months reading and talking about. Yesterday at lunch I was wondering, nervously, how it was going to turn out, wondering if I was capable of hosting, of taking the lead if discussion flagged, and then I laughed, remembering that I took a whole class on Jane Austen without doing any of the assigned reading. I have read all six of her novels so many times in my short life that I could write essays and participate in discussions without any need to read them again (since I was rather swamped with reading for other classes at the time.)

In the end, a book club is just a group of people who like books and think there's something to be learned from reading them, and thinking about them, and talking about them. A book club is a testament to the enjoyment to be found in books– a pleasure which no movie, no video game, no electronic experience of any kind will, in my opinion, ever be able to replace.

Monday, January 14, 2013

On Words

Today I decided to celebrate my freedom from homework by starting a new class.

It is something only a true word-nerd would do: before she is even formally graduated, begin watching a set of DVD lectures on the history of the English language.

The Great Courses ® is, in some ways, rather better than actual college coursework (and no, the company is not paying me to say this!) The advantages of in-home viewing, at your own pace and schedule, are self-evident, not to mention the hundreds of courses available, and the fact that they give you your money back if you decide halfway through that you don't like the teacher (something no college class, in my experience, has ever done!) In my case this set was a gift from my parents for my birthday several years ago, which, since I was in the middle of college, I neglected to commit to watching. Now there's nothing to keep me, and since this course doesn't have homework I decided there was no better way to launch my post-college career as a stay-at-home pilot's wife and writer.

I know I am not alone in my love for words. I'm not the only person who has lost a game of Speed Scrabble because she was paying more attention to making long, enjoyable words than to winning the game.You don't have to be an English major to like words; neither do you have to have read much Shakespeare (I am a Case In Point). But in case you have never stopped to consider the delight that words can give, join me in pondering the sheer, innate delectableness of words like... loquacious.

Say it! Let the syllables linger on your tongue before you let them loose on the listening air. Notice how your voice instinctively deepens on the first two letters, (it would be absurd to say them in a high or squeaky voice), how the "kway" seductively curls itself around the outward breath of emphasis (even more if you extend it a little) and how the word trails off in a half-whisper, half-hiss.

Or what about chortle? Can you say it five times fast without grinning?

Doesn't the sound of mesmerize carry with it that tantalizing vision of a thing desired, a misty vision of a word!

I also love words that look elegant on the page: words like melancholy and trousseau and mayonnaise.

I started a list of all the words I could use instead of "bad" or "good", and I was astonished by the shades of meaning that color the alternatives. Unnecessary is miles away from ludicrous in meaning, and yet how often do we use the dull, all-encompassing "bad" instead of either? It would be like painting all our rooms black, since black supposedly contains all shades of color. Think of the difference between something that is enchanting and something that is extraordinary, and then tell me if you can possibly bear to use "good"to describe them both.

Why, in modern communication, do we insist on abbreviation, on condensation, on making language as simple and dull as possible? When did we stop enjoying words? When did we cease to recognize the power and beauty of words? My friends and relations will tell you that I send text messages that are complete sentences, with proper punctuation, spelling, and grammar. This is not merely English major stuffiness. There is something within me that is drawn to the dignity of words, and to condense, abbreviate, and distort them purposefully to me would be like taking The Mona Lisa and drawing a mustache on it. (And yes, I know, people have digitally done that.)

So of course you can see why, for me, the history of the English language would be a fascinating topic, a grand epic where the characters are words instead of people, meeting and conflicting with each other, battling for pre-eminence. What words will win, to live on through the ages from parchment to pixels, and what words are doomed to die, fading from memory and writing? 

I suspect this is not the end of my soliloquy (another word that's fun to say!) on the subject, but, in the mean time, I invite you to consider words. I invite you to consider words as not simply a row of blank faces but as alive with expression and emotion and meaning. What is the power of words? And, to make it more personal, what is the power of your words– and what are you going to do with it?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Return to Writing

I'm back!

I promise I didn't forget about this blog. Really. A one-week break turned into a two-week break turned into a Christmas break turned into a holiday sabbatical.

Returning is awkward. I feel quite shy– as if I need to introduce myself, as if I started out a class and then was sick for six weeks and came back and nobody remembered me. In that sense blogging is a very lonely business; quite often it's an exercise in launching one's thoughts into cyberspace and never knowing whom they might run into, as if each blog post were in a little escape pod and I was the mother-ship, sending out signals into the void to see if anyone is out there.

Of course, I know you're out there– you faithfuls who always click the link when I post it on Facebook– or who have subscribed– you who send me encouraging comments or messages or emails, whom I could name as the people who motivate me to keep writing, to keep on launching those little escape pods because I know there's life out there and those lives like what they find inside the pods.

There is, however, a rhythm, a tune, to the writing life, and it's one which I am trying to learn– more intentionally, now that school is over. Academic writing is the killer of creative writing; it is the musician who plays off-key during the whole symphony– it spoils creativity. When I have finished writing an academic essay there are several hundred other things I would rather do than write creatively, even cleaning bathrooms or going to the gym.

But now, thank heaven, Academic writing is over forever (please no one mention "master's degree" if you love me!) and what I feel to be my biggest mental block is crumbled, and now I'm free to find out how to be a Writer. A real, live one, not just a pretend one. Do not mistake me. I feel very much as if I'm still eight years old and pretending, but at what point does a scribbler become a writer? At what point does a (lower-case) writer become a (upper-case) Writer? (Would a Writer know whether I should have said an (upper case) Writer instead of a (upper-case) Writer?)

I think I just have to keep on pretending, and scribbling, and writing, until someday the pretend becomes true. Maybe someday I'll know it. Perhaps I shall wake up one morning with the dramatic conviction that somehow I have arrived, that in some mysterious fashion I have been transformed from a girl who likes to write into a true, honest-to-goodness Writer. But I doubt it. I have never heard of anyone who had that experience. Rather, I have read over and over that those people whom we think of as "Writers" were people who liked to write and kept on doing it no matter what, and then people started paying attention to what they wrote. I don't know if anyone will ever start paying attention to what I write, but I'm trying not to let that matter to me. The only thing I have a choice in is whether or not to keep writing.