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.


  1. :) Wish I could join you Meredith.

  2. I'm so glad you started it!! Hooray!! Wish I could be there. :-)