“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
It is no surprise that I, an English teacher, would be an advocate for book clubs. I have participated in several throughout different stages of my life. Some were religious in nature; another was comprised of only high school English teachers in New York City, and another was a group of young mothers in Colorado desperately seeking adult conversation. Each group brought variety to the table, whether it was diversity of age, background, religious affiliation, political preference or choice in literature. In my humble opinion, the purpose of a book club is to read books that I would not go out and read on my own. I do not need accountability and support to read The Help or another best-selling page turner, but I might need help getting through a Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories. After all, didn’t Mark Twain suggest that classics are books everyone wants to have read but nobody actually wants to read?
Sadly, research is beginning to show that people really are opting to not read those books. Christopher Ingraham detailed this demise in a recent article for the Washington Post. “In 2015, 43 percent of adults read at least one work of literature in the previous year. That's the lowest percentage in any year since NEA surveys began tracking reading and arts participation in 1982, when the literature reading rate was 57 percent.” With so many distractions and the lure of technology and social media, Americans are losing the momentum to read.
Apparently, this problem is not only affecting adults. Helen Korbey writes for KQED about the sad decline of reading among American schoolchildren. “By age 15, the U.S. doesn’t even make the top 20 countries in the world who enjoy reading most.” How can we begin to halt and reverse this dangerous trend before these kids grow into a non-reading adult population? In his book, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do, University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham details a new mentality when approaching the act of reading. He suggests that we shift the focus - making it less about school and more about a life well-lived. “Instead of telling kids that reading books will help them get good grades or find a good career, he said, make reading part of a larger family value: loving to learn,” reports Korbey.
How is reading a sign of a life well-lived? Discussing books involves talking about the world, life and our role as human beings. We explore the human condition through narrative and learn to see the world through the eyes of another person. Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, writes that she picks up books to get the information she missed when she was growing up. Similarly, I remember reading books like The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew-- Three Women Search for Understanding in one of my past book groups. This text created an opportunity to discuss motherhood and life from multiple perspectives - seeing beyond our own personal experiences and into the lives of others.
Reading is a solitary act, an experience of interiority. To read a book is to burst the confines of one’s consciousness and enter another world. What happens when you read a book in the company of others? You enter its world together but see it in your own way; and it’s through sharing those differences of perception that the book group acquires its emotional power.
This emotional power can also be inviting and somewhat contagious. After years of watching me head off to book club meetings, my son asked me to be in a book club with him. We are a two member club who mainly read together over summer break. Wonder by R.J. Palacio is our very favorite selection to date. We both cried when it ended. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis stated, “There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.” When my son and I share in the same story and get to know the characters together, we both enlarge our world and our relationship. I hope we continue this tradition well into adulthood and old age.
My current book club is a tightly-knit group of faculty at the college where I teach. Members include instructors from sociology, history, creative writing and several English faculty. The eight of us have been meeting for over a year. When we discuss books, we have rich context and background knowledge allowing us to draw connections among titles from month to month. We rotate who chooses the book for each meeting, which has encouraged a wide variety of genres and interests to be represented. One month’s selection had me wandering around lost in Barnes and Noble only to discover it was housed in the fantasy section, an unfamiliar cluster of aisles I never enter of my own accord.
My favorite moment of our monthly book club meeting is when I listen to someone speak and get to respond, “Oh! I never thought about it that way!” Some books just need to be discussed; we can learn so much from listening to one another. Ingraham discusses literature’s role in teaching empathy and concludes his article with this warning: “If we're reading less literature, it stands to reason that we may be becoming a less empathetic country as a result (research tends to bear this out).” Active readers are constantly making text-to-text, text-to-self and text-to-world connections. Through gathering all of our connections into one discussion, we create an elaborate web of expanded understanding. It is worth considering that if we stop reading, it becomes yet another way we are choosing not to listen to each other.
Here are my top five reasons everyone should join a book club:
You will read a variety of books you would not read on your own.
Some books open the door for rich, important dialogue and discussion.
We all need more authentic opportunities to listen to each other and expand our world.
Reading is good for you and a sign of a life well-lived. Turn off the television and log off.
Your children are watching, and America’s future love of learning could be at stake.
My book club is pretty set in our way of doing things, but I am constantly encouraging others to take the initiative to start a group of their own. You don’t need to be a literary expert, and there are countless resources online to help you get started. Some book clubs have themes, such as cooking or historical fiction, but I happen to enjoy switching it up from month to month. I agree with Haruki Murakami when he writes, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”