Sunday, January 31, 2010

In Praise of Book Clubs

While the title of this post alone does not provoke much surprise among a book blogging community - if you consider that I have never been a part of a book club, yet I am willing to sing its praises, it may sound rather odd.

I have always thought that the social aspect of a book club would be quite enjoyable. All of us would agree that the act of reading is, by and large, a very solitary activity. A book club allows the human need to be social beings to meld seamlessly with our favorite past time. Add a splash of beverage, a good nosh, and an engaging conversation, and the experience (I imagine) is sublime. I have not given up on the possibility of finding such a great experience in my neck of the woods, but I have learned not to hold my breath. That is why I am so grateful to have found this wonderful, online, network of bibliophiles (and I provide my own snacks).

But in reading the bloggosphere this week, I have learned that there is another very academic, and humanitarian reason why book clubs are valuable: they give the solitary reader the opportunity to hear different points of view, which (hopefully) leads to a more tolerant, accepting society. This became so clear to me as various bloggers were posting their tribute to J. D. Salinger.

I was never required to read Catcher in the Rye in school, and the opportunity never really presented itself in my adult years. This summer, however, when a visiting professor gave a lecture at the Bread Loaf School of English entitled, Dostoevsky and J. D. Salinger: Catcher in the (Russian) Rye, an essay that he wrote to present at an educational Conference in Russia this past August, I decided that it was time that I read this modern-day classic for myself. When I returned home I made good on this promise and you can find my initial review here. Needless to say, my initial reaction was fair to mediocre at best.

However, in the few months since that initial review, I have found myself reflecting on that poignant story of Holden Caulfield and have discovered that the voice that initially offended me, has really caused me to sympathize with the teenage boy over time. Fast forward to this past Sunday when I was surfing various blog sites. Meghan (Medieval Bookworm) gave an absolutely beautiful account of reading this book two specific times in her life and how each time she was greatly affected, but for different reasons. That was something that I HAD to read. Then Beth Fish commented that she had not actually lost a sibling, but losing a close friend to Leukemia helped her to understand where Holden was coming from. This gave me pause to stop - and analyze my own reaction to the book. As a 50 year old woman I would perhaps have used less "colorful" language to describe my depressed state of mind; but as a teenage boy, who has lost his brother and is searching for meaning in life, would I not in fact resort to foul language? Is there not something in that diction that condenses the hopelessness of it all? Was I not too hasty in my judgment of the author's writing style? THIS is why book clubs are needed. We need to hear other viewpoints and why they like a book we perhaps dislike? OR contrarily....why they dislike a book that we enjoy.

It is all a matter of opinion, and opinion is neither right nor wrong. But opinion enables us to empathize with others, to see the other perspective, to not be so hasty and obstinate in our judgments, but rather, as Atticus Finch instructs us, "to walk in someone else's shoes for a while."

So, I may not have a book club to attend in person....but fortunately there are several online experiences that can fill that void for me. I am most interested in attending the read-along for Catcher in Rye Rye starting February 14. I look forward to hearing all opinions regarding this controversial novel, and learning more about myself and human nature in the process.


  1. I have my review of The Catcher in the Rye going out tomorrow. I really didn't enjoy the book, but I felt that I might have enjoyed it more had I read it as a teenager.

  2. I was never required to read this book either. I am forever disgruntled at the fact that I missed out on all that in high school or college! I was educated by apes! I wanted to participate in the read-along but Kindle doesn't sell the book and all the library copies are on hold for a dog's age. I will get to it someday, and try to keep an open mind!

  3. I loved this book as a teenager! Great post. You really should consider writing something like this for Book Club Exchange.

  4. You are so right! I've found that I appreciate books in a different way after I talk to someone about them or after I talk to the author.

  5. That's one reason I love discussing books. It's always so interesting to hear different viewpoints and they really cause me to reconsider how I feel. I'm glad my post made you think!

  6. My one experience with a real live book club was a bit of a disaster ... it has a lot to do with the people in the group.

    And there are at least 3 Catcher in the Rye read-alongs that I've seen ... you can really have a discussion going on many different levels if you want.

  7. I have found that a book club discussion can change my mind about a book -- it can open my mind up to the flaws or it give me the perspective to understand what I didn't understand before.

    I was fortunate to have gone to a junior high and high school that required lots of reading of both classics and important books of the times.

  8. Interesting post...Book clubs can change lives. I know from personal experience.
    Just posted about a new dowloadable booklet from Voluntary Arts Ireland about setting up a book club and advice on how to select books.


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