Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Book clubs and reading in common

Although such things often fail, I love the idea of book clubs, reading groups, and reading projects. Having spent too much of my life already with A Frolic of One’s Own, I didn’t dare join the Gaddis Drinking Club: there’s not enough sauvingnon blank in the world for that. Still, my copy of Don Quixote arrived over the weekend and I’m ready to read along with the folks at 400 Windmills.

Other reading groups have had mixed results. Right after grad school, some friends enlisted me to join their group. We read Far from the Madding Crowd together and, on that first meeting (a month later than we’d hoped it would be; it’s a long book), my friend said she found Bathsheba an incredibly liberated person for that time period, the 1600s. Or was it the 1700s? Or… Confused and nervous, she looked to me. I flipped my Penguin over to the back: ”Far from the Madding Crowd was first published in 1874…” Suddenly, I became the professor of our group. We disbanded shortly thereafter.

In my little town in Indiana, I was an enthusiastic and regular participant in our Jane Austen Book Club. The motley group of women, professors, wives, and administrators all stuck in a tiny town would have been easy to mock; the comments of some were naïve in the extreme. But it was wonderful and welcoming to be in a room of twelve women from 25 to 80. Plus, we had champagne and cheesecake without fail. Very Oprah but very pleasant, too.

My best book club though was one I crashed: two of my very most beloved friends, a couple, were spending the summer apart and decided to read contemporary fiction in common as a way of having more to write to each other about. The next year, I added myself on as a third wheel. It was divine. We went to the bookstore and picked nine newish paperback novels to read, in any order. We were only to write to each other from time to time with our opinions of the books. No pressure; no rules. I was far from reading all the books (the Gaddis did me in, to be honest!), but what a lovely pleasure. I wrote up my thoughts in book reviews and then, as an unexpected benefit, found that I had learned how to review—something I began doing for real the next year.

We’ll see how the Quixote goes, but my experience of the virtual book group bodes well.

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