I start my Mondays with news, and today I found this interesting article from WSJ called No, I Don’t Want to Join Your Book Club by Betsy McKay. The article requires you to register unless you have a subscription. It’s a good read, but if you don’t want to go through the trouble of registering, I’ll summarize it below.
According to the article, traditional book clubs, “the kind where you have to read a book you didn’t pick, finish by a deadline and come to the meeting with something clever to say,” are not for everyone. Although book clubs have been “a staple of social life” for years, a lot of people have complaints. The book clubs might not cater or reflect their tastes and these readers shy from offering recommendation for the fear that the rest of the club won’t like their preferred reads. Reading assigned books feels too much like work. There is pressure to come up with “smart-sounding hot takes” about the books they’ve read and don’t like to be put on the spot.
Whatever reason, some people look for alternative to the traditional book club structure. Some become members of silent book clubs, gathering at local libraries, restaurants, breweries, or other fun places to quietly read in peace with other book-loving people. Some do away with assigned book lists and instead meet once a week over dinner to discuss the individual books they’ve read without the “classroom-vibe” ruining the mood. The people mentioned in the article really embrace this new format. There are many pictures of happy people reading together.
Moving on from the article to a more personal take, at the core, reading seems like a quintessentially private form of entertainment. It’s just you and the page. So why are people so eager to connect a talk about what they’ve read? Why is this a social pastime?
There are probably many reasons, but from a writer’s point of view, the need to discuss books makes perfect sense. Books are a form of communication. We write them to connect with other readers. We have things we want to say, and so we say them through the narrative. And then that communication filters through the reader, becomes altered and enriched by their thoughts, aided by their own life experiences, and it is passed on, to other readers.
As a writer, it’s fun to see this happen. Your message, your creation, living on. You can see it resonate or fail to resonate. Readers tend to view characters as role models. Writers, though, strive to mirror life by creating flawed characters, messy and imperfect. It is those imperfections and the inherent messiness that make for the best discussions, because in a way it contributes to the net of social ties that both bind and support us.
Whether we like it or not, we have some leftover emotions and survival mechanisms that evolved to keep us alive in more dangerous times. Fear is one of those. Young kids like to be scared. It must’ve been a part of some survival strategy. If a scary predator comes near and you are weak and small, your best bet is to hide and be very still. Sabretooth tigers no longer stalk our toddlers, but the need to experience that fear lingers. There is a reason why Goosebumps is a cultural phenomenon.
Hate. Another powerful emotion that most of us try to avoid. It’s a harmful state of being, both to the one who hates and to the one who is hated. We’re discouraged from hating and engaging in violence hate creates, and so we try to suppress the urge to hate. But the mechanism that activates it is still in place. A teacher once told me that the scariest thing in the world are good people who are given permission to hate. When emotion that is suppressed erupts, especially collectively, it causes irreparable damage.
On the flip side of the coin, in our ordinary lives, we are rarely thrilled about something. We don’t usually reach a state of being elated and or even that excited. We don’t often feel overwhelming relief. We don’t always get an opportunity to cheer in sympathy.
Books allow us to experience all of those extremes. We can celebrate a protagonist’s win, we can hate the antagonist as much as we like, and we can pass judgement on every character without any kind of social backlash. We can cry, we can yell, we can vent all we want.
And then we reach out and look for validation of our feelings. “Oh I really hated so and so. Did you hate him too? Yes? And I was so happy when so and so finally won. Were you? Oh good. I found my people.” There is acceptance and reassurance there. A safe sense of belonging, in a way.
What are your thoughts on book clubs? Are you a solitary reader or a social one?