Tuesday, March 19, 2013



One of the more unusual birthday presents I have ever received came from my son Gareth, who gave me the founding membership in a book club he wanted me to organize. In other words, I should found it, and he, and any others I invited, would become members.


I stalled for a few weeks, flattered to have been asked but disconcerted by the responsibility, and uncertain, in the vast world of fiction, of what book to choose.


Even more troubling was getting over my concept of reading as a solitary activity. I have often thought it is one of the most selfish acts. As a working mother of little ones, I remember locking myself in the bathroom to read. Even now I have to make an effort to put down the Sunday paper, look up and give the speaker my full attention, sternly willing myself not to look down at the tantalizing article from which I was so abruptly pulled.


The rules were the easy part: No book longer than 600 pages; each month brings a new book; members take turns selecting, from oldest to youngest. It’s best if the selector has already read the book, rather than waste a bad choice that no one has read. What’s less clear is what happens after everyone has read the book.


Is reading something I want to share? What if sharing somehow trivialized my one-on-one experience?  Would I be tolerant of the inevitable comparisons of books with the films that were based on them? How would I handle my impatience with interpretations that don’t comport with my own?  It is one thing to teach a class where I am the undisputed authority. It is quite another to do this socially, and worse still, with family.


The irony is that as a family we all love books and we all read. But do we all love to discuss what we’ve read?  What happens once we all agree that it was a marvelous book?  Will we be reduced to following some stupid outline of canned questions at the back of the book, designed for just such awkward situations? Or will we rise above it, and astound each other with the depths of our insights? Or will we end up shouting?

Of course one alternative would be to have no discussion, merely move on to the next month’s selection.


Very tentatively, I set off by choosing The Magus, by John Fowles. A book I have read, and one that usually makes the best hundred books lists, and one that would likely be a new discovery for the younger generation. I figured since Gareth dreamed up this idea, he was, in effect, asking me for a recommendation of book he should read, and I thought this would be worth his while.


I dutifully re-read it, surprised at how little I remembered, and at how differently I interpreted it this time around. At 19 I read it as a bildungs roman, envious of the adventures of Nicholas, wistful about his sojourn on a Greek island, entranced at the elaborate efforts to entice him into . . . well, what exactly? An adventure? A mystery? A trap? A psychological experiment?


I am aware that much hangs on this first meeting of the club. Its longevity will depend on how satisfying everyone finds this discussion phase. And to my surprise, I find I am actually impatient for the other members to finish this book so we can talk about it. I want to revisit some of the scenes that have multiple interpretations, about which I am still unclear. I want to know the impressions of my fellow members, and yes, probably argue with them.


But the book club is startng to feel like real birthday gift. I begin to see the possibilities of reading as a social, rather than solitary, act.

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