Talking About Books

Starting a family book club seemed like such a good idea. I copied it from a friend whose family chooses one book they all read ahead of time and then discuss during their annual beach vacation. They’ve been doing it for years. And now that my friend’s grandchildren are fluent readers, they sometimes join in on the fun, too.

My kids and I could do that, couldn’t we?

I was reluctant to suggest such a thing until I found out that my son, whom I’ve always suspected of being a closet reader but who seldom talks about books with me, told me that he and his wife had recently started reading the same book at the same time and then discussing it between themselves. They started with “Catcher in the Rye” and then moved on to “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” Excellent choices, all.

I’m a long-time member of two daytime book discussion groups here in Cookeville. When new participants gather with us for the first time, many express surprise that we don’t drink wine during the meetings and that we actually spend an hour talking about the book we were supposed to have read. The reply? We operate under the assumption that the point of a book discussion group is to discuss books. And we’re not opposed to wine, it just doesn’t seem all that appealing right after breakfast.

Both of my daughters were avid readers from a young age and both majored in English in college. Not surprisingly, they were eager to join book clubs when they started their lives as grown-ups. Alas, their high hopes were quickly dashed.

One daughter was disappointed in her group’s book choices, which she described as heavy on chick-lit. The other was frustrated that, in the two meetings she attended, the group never got around to talking about the book at all. “They talked about their jobs and their kids’ soccer practice and about how they chose their dentist, but not one word was said about the book we were supposed to have all read,” she told me. Both daughters soon called it quits. Who can blame them?

One of the things I love about being in a real book group is that it encourages you to read stuff you might never have chosen on your own or, perhaps, even heard about. The book groups I’m in have rules, which is probably the reason we’re still going after more than 20 years. The first rule is to never suggest a book you haven’t recently read yourself. “I heard it was good,” isn’t a good enough reason. (I once chose “Great Expectations” because I’d read and enjoyed an excerpt from the Dickens classic when I was a freshman in high school. My friends still haven’t forgiven me.) The second rule is that the book should be one that will stimulate discussion and perhaps differences of opinion. If everybody simply says “I liked it,” the meeting will be boring. And short.

We generally start with the leader-of-the-month telling how she came to learn about the book and why she chose it. Then she talks a little about the author and any awards the book has perhaps won. After that, each participant gets two uninterrupted minutes to say anything she wants about the book. These remarks are almost always springboards for further discussion. The last rule is that you’re welcome to come to the meeting if you haven’t finished (or even started) the book, but you can’t complain about spoilers. Chances are we’re going to talk about how the book ends.

Speaking of spoilers, I’ve run out of room in today’s column so I can’t tell you how the Ivey family book discussion went. Stay tuned.

(July 24, 2021)