Friday, August 18, 2006

Book clubs

From We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver:
They may not always talk, but there is an assumption of fellowship in their proximity, an esprit de corps reminiscent of a book club whose members are all plowing through the same arduously long classic.

"They" are the black mothers in the prison visitors' waiting room, and the analogy made me smile (as it reflects largely how I feel about the cameraderie surrounding my reading of War and Peace).

Are book clubs a shared prison sentence?


Anonymous said...

You know, I've been thinking about the War and Peace reading blog/group/experience, and how different it is from Middlemarch. Did we pick the wrong book this time around? Is it just too goddamn big, and folks have subtlely dropped out, or is it just too goddamn big, making it feel like anything one says is incredibly superficial? Or is it just not as good a book as Middlemarch?

Isabella K said...

Since you ask... (and if you are reading WP with us, I really wish you'd chime in here)

I think it's a combination of people dynamics, timing (vacations and other summer distractions), and the book itself.

MM seemed to me wildly successful, WP less so but comparable to other group blogs (eg, on Don Quixote). And I think WP and DQ have a lot in common as far as a reading group goes.

Size. Not everyone reads at the same pace, which is fine, but when the book is that long, the difference in pace translates to increased distance between readers. It's harder to hold a relevant conversation.

The book itself. WP and DQ are not exactly traditional novels, rather a lot of separate episodes. The themes, patterns, and point of them don't really emerge until you're quite far along. (This is partly an effect of size, but also to do with the content.) Of course, you can't really know this (as far as book club selection goes) if you haven't read it, and if you have, once you've got it you're not likely to think of this as a problem, unless you've encountered this problem in a reading group experience.

Personally, I'm finding things I'd like to comment on every few pages, but then I realize it's ahead of schedule, I should save them up, and before you know it's big and daunting and time-consuming. Or the things I question a few chapters later are made clear, which is good by my personal reading experience but reduces the possibility of meaningful conversation. Or their significance is overshadowed by some new event. Or I have to go on a picnic.

And ya, anything I think to say does strike me as incredibly superficial.

Honestly, I think it's NOT as good a reading group book as Middlemarch.

So the question is what makes a good reading group book. Long enough and meaty enough to be drawn out a bit and discussed along the way, but there's a limit. Something less "epic" than WP, whatever exactly "epic" means — DQ is maybe epic (is it?) but it spans a pretty short time; MM spans a few years but I don't think it's epic. A more traditional narrative/plot (though I'm not entirely clear myself on why I'm starting to agree with Tolstoy that WP isn't a novel). The war bits of WP aren't exactly my thing, but MM had a political backdrop, though not so much in your face, so I wouldn't exclude a book from consideration on that basis.

Any ideas on how to choose a book? (Should there be a next book?)

I'm within 100 pages of the end of WP (I've found that I'd rather spend my precious time actually reading it than writing about it, and it's easier too), and I aniticipate having time on my hands next week, so maybe all I've thought about along the way will come flooding out. Or maybe not.