by Joan Sullivan
In the spring of 2000, I was invited to join a book club by a dear friend named Betty. She told me that while watching her husband play soccer, she struck struck up a conversation with the spouse of another player who happened to be reading the same book she was. They got to talking and comparing their interests. Of course, the inevitable happened, and they decided to start a... book club? Yep, that's right!
Over the next few weeks, they invited other spouses of the soccer players and me...the only one who’s husband didn’t play soccer. As Betty told me about her idea, I admitted that I wasn’t interested. I was perfectly happy reading whatever books I wanted to read. Why would I want to read a book chosen by someone else? For example, I loved reading biographies and historical fiction, and absorbed myself in The Tudors. I especially loved Henry VIII. I read almost every book I could find about him and his wives. I couldn't get enough of the scandals, the outrage, the religious pomp and circumstance. I certainly wasn’t sure I wanted to read some flimsy romantic “chick lit”, or some heavy-duty classic that I was forced to read in high school. What would I get out of being a part of this book club?
Betty tried to convince me to meet the other women. She told me I needed some time away from my hectic life, and that this wasn’t just an excuse to go out to dinner, but would enhance our reading experience. In their 2015 article, "Why Book Clubs Matter". Gretchen Rumohr-Voskuil and Deborah Vriend Van Duinen wrote that “having a reader identity means that our sons, daughters, students, partners, friends, and colleagues witness for themselves the pleasure that we find in reading”.
While the phrase “reader identity” was not known to my other self back in 2000, I did like the idea that my children would see me read more often, and would see that I took the time to value and discuss books and reading.
I relented, and told Betty I’d meet with the group. We met at a big, noisy, Italian restaurant. I was nervous as we squeezed ourselves into a naugahyde booth. The music was so loud, we had to practically shout at each other. The lighting was dim, the walls were painted red, and the artwork on the walls were mostly funky, gold-framed paintings of the pope, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and your other most famous Italians. We began sharing our life stories at this dinner, talking about our favorite books while drinking cheap chianti and serving spaghetti family-style from the big platter in the center of the table. A few of the members had newborn babies, and some had just become newlyweds, planning out their lives.
As a full-time office manager (and equally full-time mother and wife), I had to carve out time to read. Before I met them, I assumed these women didn’t work outside the home and would lounge around for hours on their beautiful couches reading all afternoon. Of course, none of that was true. These women were very busy and intelligent; they were teachers, counselors, artists, and businesswomen. The more I learned about their lives and backgrounds, the more I became interested in hearing their points of view. They were not like me. Our backgrounds were very different. Still, we were able to listen to each other’s opinions respectfully...and with good humor! I told Betty I would join this new book club.
As the months went on, I found that the way I absorb a story is very different than the others. Together, we read Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian, a book about a woman who falls in love with a man who later tells her that he’s decided to go through a sex change. The book describes the transformation in their relationship, and in great detail, what happens during the operation. Although I found it fascinating, other members had a very hard time reading it.
Another book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom, I found contrived and sentimental. I felt insulted as it tried to tug at my heartstrings, while other members fell in love with it. Those conversations were the most entertaining and meaningful. I was able to see something from a different point of view, from someone who, by then, I knew very well, cared for, and respected very much.
Now, eighteen years later, as we sit around a dinner table finishing up our meal, drinking our wine and feeling relaxed and uninhibited, the conversations become more animated...especially when we feel strongly about our opinions. It is always a surprise to find myself not liking a book, only to change my mind completely after a book club meeting and a fiery discussion about the pros and cons of a character or plot line.
Our book choices are varied:
Being a part of this book club not only increased the amount of reading I did, but also the variety of books I’ve read. I’ve become a more insightful reader. I can better recognize good writing and bad writing.
In her article "Five Reasons to Join a Book Club"(click), Delia Lloyd says, “Some books need to be discussed”, but I find this to be true for all books. For example, we can talk about the worst book we’ve read, and find some saving grace. We all agreed Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays was simplistic and predictable, but the love he expressed for his father was heartwarming. Then, we can talk about one of the best books we’ve read and still find flaws. Like John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America, was beautiful and vivid, but maybe not always realistic.
Being able to talk about a book you’ve read with a group of people who have also read the book helps you absorb more than just the words on the page. You get to hear how other readers interpret a person’s identity, or the way a house is described, or other details in the book which might be up for interpretation. Now, when I read a book, not only do I think about whether it’s a good story and well written, I also think about my fellow book club members and try to figure out which ones will like it and which ones won’t.
After 18 years, 170 books, we continue to argue, laugh, and cry about books over dinner...and I can’t imagine anything better.
Joining this book club and getting to know these eight women has changed my life.
We have celebrated and supported each other through births, divorces, and deaths.
We’ve become our own village and it’s all because of our love of books.
Joan Sullivan is a guest blogger, and a sophomore at the University of LaVerne.