Insights from Book Group

Some people question the purpose of book groups. I’ve had people (mostly men, to be honest) ask,

A pretty good choice

“What’s the point? Why not just read the book? Who really cares what anyone else thinks?”

Most everyone, however, can comprehend at least a few book group benefits. It’s social. It’s friendship. It’s, sometimes, good food and wine! Moreover, it’s a means to share a common interest. If you love books and reading, it’s fun–not for everyone, but for some of us–to explore that passion with others.

Discussing books (and movies and other arts) also challenges one’s own thinking. Hearing others’ reactions to a book can open your mind, maybe drive you crazy, perhaps raise questions about your own opinions. In any case, being forced to verbalize your thoughts can be a bracing challenge. It may cause you to clarify your values, as we used to say in the ’70’s. Your idiosyncratic tastes may heretofore have gone unrecognized, even (or especially) by yourself.

For example (you knew there was an example, didn’t you?), I’m realizing more clearly why I read and what I look for in a book. It’s not content. I usually don’t care what a book’s about, although,of course, I often read non-fiction because I’m interested in the subject matter. I read a lot about borderline personality disorder, for instance, when I was researching the topic, first, for my own exploration, and then for my book. Even with non-fiction, though, I’m often reading for reasons other than subject matter. I read and loved The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, even though I knew nothing of netsuke–little Japanese sculptures–and not much about Japanese culture in general. I found him and his storytelling fascinating, and that’s all it took.

I like being surprised. (Notice I didn’t say shocked. Though that’s okay sometimes.) Canada, Richard Ford’s recent epic novel, surprised me. At every turn, I didn’t know what was going to happen, even though he gives away the ending in the first sentence. Beyond the plot, though, I’d never read anything like that book. It’s in two big, very different sections. It’s artfully narrated by an older man who tells the story from the point of view of a young boy. How does a writer convey both those sensibilities a the same time? It’s fully of irony and doubt and moral ambiguity. You can’t summarize it in twenty-five words or less.

I’ve learned from my book-group discussions, also, that I don’t care very much about liking the characters. Canada’s characters are not particularly likeable. Neither were Claire Messud’s in her troubling new novel The Woman Upstairs. I was struck by this passage from the Irish novelist Colm Toibin’s recent book of critical essays called New Ways to Kill Your Mother:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgements on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place. This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of a character in a novel must be judged not as we would judge a person. Instead, we must look for density, for weight and strength within the pattern, for ways in which figures in novels have more than one easy characteristic, one simple affect. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.

Toibin, whose warm and accessible novel Brooklyn, by the way, bears little connection to quantum physics, may be overstating it a smidge. In general, though, he’s saying what I often think. Who, after all, likes Lady Macbeth or even Hamlet? Who likes Ahab or the Wicked Witch of the West or Humbert Humbert? We don’t have to like them to be grateful to their creators.

Thankfully, my book groups are not all about me and my tastes, but they help me clarify and understand my tastes, at the same time they allow me to consider other people’s preferences. After a book group discussion, I often understand myself, my friends, and the book at hand a lot better. There’s also all the laughing.

What about book groups? What’s the point? If you’re in one (or two), why? If not, why not?




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1 Response to Insights from Book Group

  1. Lisa Marin says:

    What? No one’s commented on this post yet? Everyone must be 4th of July-ing.
    There’s too much to say in this small space. (Love the Toibin quote.) Those “what’s the point, just read the book” remarks drive me nuts. (Also the ones about there being nothing to talk about in fiction and the ones about nothing happening in the plot.)
    I desperately want to be back in a book group. I miss the shared excitement, despair, warmth & intensity of feeling aroused by a good book. But I don’t miss the wealth of extraneous talk, the agendas – hidden or not, the self-absorption that seem to blossom & grow in these groups. I have been more guilty than anyone of these (and worse)transgressions. So, to save myself from further sinning, I no longer am part of a book group!

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