I have trouble finding the right way to have conversations about books. Book clubs usually bother me. And while getting my MFA, the three required 500-level literature seminars I took probably rank among the least favorite and most useless hours of my entire life. Literature classes are too much about showing off, about making other people in the class feel bad, about assuming that the author and his work fit perfectly into certain genres, time periods, and trends. Literature classes too often assume that any book read in a literature class is perfect and that the author knew exactly what he or she was doing with every single word. Not to mention that literature classes are usually way too serious and seriously boring.
On the other hand, book clubs suffer from different but equally bad problems. Too often the discussion disintegrates into emotional reactions – like which characters we liked or didn’t like, as if these characters really existed. Too often after that, the conversation too quickly deteriorates into talking about boys or shoes. Usually, these book clubs take place in quaintly quirky coffee houses with mismatched chairs, $5 espressos, and music that is just a little cooler than the music you listen to. Without exception, these coffeehouses have punny names like “The Daily Grind” or “Not Your Average Joe” or “See You Latte.”
So, you can imagine my horror yesterday, walking to a tea house called “Subtle Tea” to meet with my work-related book club for the first time. As I walked into the place, esoteric trip-hop music on the stereo (which was a just little cooler than my music ) and Mac laptops covering every flat surface (way, way cooler than my Mac laptop), my hopes were not high. Even though I wanted to talk about the book, I wasn’t sure I was ready to be disappointed again. You might even say I was filled with a deep Apa Tea.
But what followed, to my delight, was a pretty intelligent and fun discussion of the book we read (it was Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics – you can read my review here). No one got interrupted, no one talked too much, no one said “semiotic” or “paradigm” or “post post modern.” Someone brought chocolate.
It reminded me that, even though most organized book-talking sessions go wrong somehow, getting to talk about what you’re reading with a diverse group of people is something to work toward, even if it means sitting within earshot of a hipster knitting circle discussing skinny jeans. Not only do you get to ask questions and hear about totally different and interesting readings of the book, but I also find myself reading the book more closely before the discussion and getting more out of it. The whole thing filled me with hope and got me totally excited about next month’s book, Ian McEwan’s Atonement.
After the meeting, I met my friend Amanda and we got talking about books, too – a new short story writer she’s discovered, her first experience with Dos Passos. And when I got home, I talked with Ben about the short story I read on the train that he had recommended. Here I was thinking that I never get to talk about books, when really I spent the whole night doing it with one person or another, in one way or another.
My friends, I suppose, make up a more loose-knit un-official book club – we often borrow and lend books to each other, argue over this or that author, talk about this or that review or trend. And I think that’s just as rewarding and just as important. I supposed the only difference is that our book club meets in bars. Bars with more straightforward names like “Cheap Shots” and “Why Not?”
Either way, I’m glad I now have both venues.