Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Groups

Frente--"The Book Song" (mp3)
Spoon--"This Book Is A Movie" (mp3)

I'm looking forward to attending a book group tomorrow, hosted by my blogging partner, Billy. I'm looking forward to it because I like Billy, and I like the book that he has chosen. I plan to happily sit there and listen to whatever is said. We're discussing Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs, a wonderful collection of essays about all things father, male, childhood, etc.

Chabon seems to be reasonably close to me in age, and we share a similar Northeast childhood, so I can, if I want to, simply read the book while wallowing in the nostalgia it creates--for Legos, for baseball cards, for Pittsburgh references. As one of the older readers in the group, no doubt, I can also read the book from a perspective of another nostalga--for my own children's younger years. They are in different stages now than the places where the author is with his children in the book.

But, I also must admit that in the grand scheme of things, I don't really understand either book groups or their purpose.

Book groups as a cultural phenomenon must be at least 20 years old by now. They're probably 40 years old in California and arrived here in Tennessee about the same time as guacamole. Since part of my personal confusion about book groups stems from their purpose, I state that purpose here as I understand it: a group of people get together to discuss a mutually-agreed upon book.

It is not accidental that I did not say 'a group of people get together to discuss a mutually-agreed upon book that they have all read.'

As any leader of a book group will tell you, the hardest part about running one is getting people to actually read the book. See, there's a social component to a book group that almost overwhelms any higher purpose, that exists to such an extent that I know of many book groups where there is no higher purpose, where by the end of the night, more wine labels than books have been read by the collected group. I don't have a problem with that, I really don't, except that I guess I'm social enough that it doesn't take a supposed literary discussion to get me over to someone's house relaxing in a comfortable chair. You had me at "Hey, wanna come over for a beer?"

At the same time, I've never been to a book (or essay) group where anyone wanted to engage in a super-intense discussion. Those tend to bring out the worst in everyone--the teacher who thinks he's still running a class, the college educated people who nevertheless have chips on their shoulders for whatever reason who must apologize for and qualify every comment they make, the pontificator who has found yet another venue in which to pontificate.

And so the group discussion tends to move toward a kind of middle ground where people seek out passages that will guarantee some kind of mutual affirmation of the ideas or the quality of the writing, or toward a kind of scattershot, disjointed discussion where everybody feels like he or she has to find and make one point to get his or her money's worth and justify his or her existence.

I'm guessing that there must be a post about book groups on Stuff White People Like.

What I haven't seen in a book group that I've been in is a knock down, drag out fight of intellectual proportions, a challenge to anyone's thinking that goes beyond the polite. The closest we came to that was earlier this year in a discussion group about an essay, not a book, where my department head managed to insult the entire Math and Science departments of our school in one sentence.

I'll admit, I don't really know what I want from a book group, because I don't know what I'm supposed to want. I don't understand the genre. I know what to expect from a class; I know what to expect from a party or a dinner. And, this may be the crux of the matter, I know what to expect from a book when I read it by myself. So I never feel too bad if I join a group, read the book, but, for whatever reason, can't make it to the actual discussion. That will sound anti-social to some of you, but perhaps the reading of books is meant to be a solitary activity.

My thanks to When I searched for songs about "books" there were a number of terrific options. Including the ones above.


goofytakemyhand said...

1. I agree completely, Bob. Years ago Goofy was shunned by the rest of A Purpose Driven Life book group (all of us were friends) when he dared challenge Rick Warren's poor use of hermeneutics throughout the book. Goofy has avoided contrarian opinions in any secular/non-secular book group since.

2. Pissed off the science and math departments in one sentence? God bless that man.

3. No mp3 of Talking Heads "Book I Read"? A glaring omission.

troutking said...

1. You want a knock-down, drag-out fight in a book group discussion??? You got it. I'll see you at lunch in a few minutes, buddy!

2. Sorry, Goofy. That's not the glaring omission. Everyday I Write the Book???????????????????

Goofytakemyhand said...

I figured you'd go with Bruce's Book of Dreams???

troutking said...

I don't acknowledge that album.

Billy said...

For some reason I derive much more joy from organizing a book group than mere participation, although I enjoy both with the right book leader and the right book.

Because my conversations can often feel random and without anchor, it's enjoyable for me to be with a group of people with a common focal point. Sure, we might digress or tangentialize, but there's a cornerstone to it all.
Maybe that's why I actually enjoyed school as a kid.

That said, I rarely expect the best discussion books to be my favorite books. One of my favorite discussion books was Self-Made Man, a highly flawed memoir but ripe with fodder for discussion b/w coworkers at an all-boys school.

Billy Bob said...

Well, as expected, yours today was quite enjoyable. There's a certain "confirmation of ideas" that takes place that leaves everyone feeling good about the experience.

Anonymous said...

I liked it, too. Thanks, Billy.

Randy said...

From personal experience, the book group can do two things:

1. A book group with people that I frequently talk to gives the opportunity for conversation about something new, rather than about the old...or rather than just sitting around and bitching about the state of things.

2. A book group with people that I only sort of know helps to cancel out my fear of small talk. No, we probably don't talk about mind-blowing philosophy...cuz we don't know each other enough to argue. But the group offers a great crutch to branch out socially. My book group Saturday was one such occasion. We combined the meeting with a whiskey tasting, so I don't really remember it...but I'm sure it was awesome.