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On Reading as a Social Activity

2011 January 20

Reading is inherently a solitary endeavor. Everyone experiences a book in a different, unique way, taking away different impressions and emotions. So then why are book clubs so popular? Because reading can be lonely, and the best way in which we can fully experience books, like anything else, is by sharing them with others, either by reviews or recommendations or discussions. Discussing a book with a friend (or stranger!) can add new dimensions, make you think of the book in a different way, or just bring the book back alive. Book clubs give you the chance to do that, on a regular basis, with a fun group of people, and snacks and wine are usually also involved as a bonus!

In Boston, I started an informal book club with a few friends and co-workers. Though not everyone knew each other at the outset, we formed a good group dynamic, and even though I didn’t love all the books we read, I really enjoyed the communal experience of reading and discussing books with people I liked and respected. The book club disbanded in the summer, because several of us moved and one started grad school.

Here in New York, I find myself looking for that same kind of companionship and group dynamic. Because I don’t have many of my own friends here yet, I rationalized that joining a book club would be a great way of meeting some smart, like-minded people. I searched Craigslist, but the only results for “book club” I got were groups of women reading chick lit novels or groups dedicated to genres like mysteries and sci-fi. I had heard good things about Meetup, so I decided to look there as well. I hit on a couple of groups that looked promising, and one was even reading Let the Great World Spin, one of my sidewalk finds that I was meaning to read anyway. It was like fate!

The meeting was last night, in the backroom of a wine bar in the East Village that I had actually visited before. There were about 30 people in attendance, sitting in a large circle.  I got there right as the meeting began, so didn’t have much of a chance to chat with anyone. We went around the circle and introduced ourselves, saying our name and which character from the book we related to best or liked most. It was a good way to get the meeting going, but things deteriorated from there. A group of 30 is simply too many people for a satisfying discussion, especially when half of the group didn’t even finish the book. The leader did his best to moderate, but he was a theatrical type, and moderating quickly became controlling. He cut in with his opinions and comments at every opportunity, and many of his friends were also in attendance, leading to a good number of private jokes and asides.

So there I sat, perched high on a stool, drinking an $11 glass of bad red wine, and listening to a bunch of strangers argue and perform for a captive audience. Out of 30 people, maybe 5-7 of the loudest got to make any points, one of whom was a friend of the organizer, decked out in Jets gear, who had read only 80 pages of the 360 page book. Clearly, he had a lot of insightful things to say. But the high point really, for me, was when one of the men (again, a loud and obnoxious friend of the organizer) said how he was “always so inspired by Tuesdays with Morrie” and proceeded to string together metaphors about duality and mirrors for about 10 minutes. It took every fiber in me to restrain myself from just getting up and walking out.

I unsubscribed from the Meetup group, mostly because I realized that a large group of strangers is not the best way to have a meaningful discussion about anything, never mind a book, and because perhaps a book club isn’t such a great way to meet new friends after all.

Are any of you in book clubs? How did they get started? Do you enjoy it?

{image via Bookshelf Porn}

8 Responses Post a comment
  1. January 20, 2011

    I say, as hard as it can be (and at times incredibly annoying!), stay on the lookout! I lucked out. When I moved to Boston, not knowing anyone, I searched for book clubs on craigslist and found one little listing. I went to meet the group and it turned into one of the best things I could have done as a newcomer to the area. I met a great group of girls and we read some great books. So worth it.

    Maybe you could start something yourself with friends. Anyway, I hope you find something awesome, cause there’s nothing like a good book club!

  2. January 20, 2011

    Similar experience! I joined a very small book club when I moved to Brooklyn, only 5 or 6 people attended. I went to one meeting; I think we discussed Palachuxyzniuk’s Lullaby. The meeting was dominated by one rude, abrasive personality and I didn’t feel I got much out of it. We couldn’t even chat civilly about non-book stuff with such a jerk at the table. So I never tried again.

    Maybe we should form our own book club! With BOOKS.

  3. January 20, 2011

    Decked out in Jets gear, babbling about Tuesdays With Morrie? Poor Morrie. :) I think you should post your book club wishes on Craigslist and see if you get any bites!

  4. Emily permalink
    January 22, 2011

    i love my bookclub! i was a late addition to it, but apparently it started on facebook and the first two meetings were similar to your experience – way too big, poor conversation, etc. but natural selection took over and now it’s a wonderful group of 6-8!

  5. January 25, 2011

    Jill, that sounds like a horrible excuse for a book club! (Or perhaps it was merely performance art…?)

    I, too, miss the easy, intelligent conversation of our book club. I’ve been thinking about trying to join up with/create a new club here in Boston, but, like you, I’m a little hesitant to go the Craigslist route. Not familiar with Meetup, but maybe I should check it out!

  6. January 26, 2011

    I can definitely sympathize. When I moved to D.C. almost three years ago, I didn’t know anyone. I found myself with more time to read, which was great, but without anyone to discuss certain books I felt something was lacking. It got to the point where I’d order two copies of a book and have one shipped down to my grandmother so we could have a long-distance sort of book club.

    Finally, I met a co-worker who shared my love for books. We decided to start our own book club and invited several of our friends. They invited people, and now we have a thriving club with over 25 members. Naturally, not everyone can make it to meetings so our discussions usually have about 6-10 people – a perfect size.

    I find Meet Up to be a little overwhelming. I like Amy’s suggestion of putting something up on Craigslist, but another option might be to go to your local bookstore/library and see if they have any existing groups you can join.

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