Book clubs are fun.
I’m talking about a good, old-fashioned book club: One where people scrape together chairs to sit around a table, where people bring plastic bags carrying a pound cake from Kroger (maybe even a little bit of Moscato, depending on the host) and pull out their well-worn, dog-eared, annotated book copies from their backpacks. Unraveling the strings of well-woven literary tapestries with friends and strangers is what gets me through the day.
A good book club serves as a place to gather with your community and encourage conversation; Book clubs are often intentional with their content selection in hopes of generating dialogues. The sleepy, silent power of reflection is often undervalued because it involves “doing nothing.” Instead, we believe that if we can fill our days with “productive” actions, then we will feel better because of how much work we have finished. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I know that I am always in need of more time to process the world around me. In book clubs, people are able to support each other, often reframing their views of the world and people in a gentler lens. These gatherings encourage group support through conversation and provide loosely structured hangout time where people are free to just be.
Technically, the form of a book club is rarely specified (reading over my former paragraph where I describe book clubs as a way of processing one’s framework to view the world, it’s easy to understand why I have seen people refer to the main world religions as book clubs), so these spaces can be used in both well-meaning (for re-evaluating one’s perspectives with empathy) and insidious (to spread potentially harmful ideas) ways. Here, I’m really just speaking about book clubs, often on the smaller side, that meet in an open discussion where people are expected to share personal opinions, while still respecting each other. Celebrity book clubs — where celebrities give titles (often women’s fiction) their stamp of approval and then conduct highly publicized discussions of the book online for thousands to see — have been big for the past few years, but I prefer the personal nature of book clubs with less than 20 people.
You can break the silence by asking people how they are. It’s easy to jump in, discussing the odd parts of the novel — maybe a description that made you laugh, a brainless joke about the lofty title, anything. You can get people to say what they like and what they don’t like about the book because by understanding the co-existence of the two, you’re all able to make the story’s swirling abstract a little more tangible. By understanding something’s flaws, you will only see the work and its context better. In fact, it’s better if you encourage disagreement in a friendly way!
Maybe the most fascinating aspect of a good book club to me is how low-stakes it can be. In high school, I struggled with English class. While I loved chatting with my favorite teacher about the consistent usage of flowers to symbolize a fleeting, dispossessed form of femininity in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” and the metatextuality of literary devices in “Life of Pi,” I faltered when it was time to “get serious” or write a six-sentence-per-paragraph, five-paragraph paper.
Back then, I remember constantly getting stomachaches from nervousness whenever we had to turn in a paper because I got my first D on a paper about “The Scarlet Ibis” because I didn’t follow the prescribed format. My high school education made it abundantly clear that even if a book was interesting, I wasn’t allowed to think it was valuable for the reasons I had found. Rather, the only ideas worth sharing were established literary theories surrounding a book, written in a format that required searching for six similar pieces of evidence to stretch across a frame, which appealed to the standards of “examiners” grading our work.
But these uninspired papers could not take the enjoyment out of reading for me; maybe one of the only things I can be sure of is that I have loved reading since “Frog and Toad.” To be frank, I’m not really sure what else I want to do except read. So both because of, and in spite of, my education, I have learned that books don’t just belong to those who can speak the loudest or appeal to the often inaccessible world of theory.
In a period of hopelessness during my freshman year of college, I decided to take a creative writing class as a way to re-engage with a personal, expressive way of learning as a break from the STEM classes I was taking at the time. My creative writing professor, whose office hours I often haunted just for conversation, was thrilled when I spoke of a new book club I was helping build. This professor often encouraged alternate readings of the pieces we discussed in class and would beam when we came up with different interpretations of a piece (which he, and now I, believe can co-exist and build on each other).
Like my professor said time and time again, I have learned that by uniting different angles in a discussion, a group can get much more out of a book than just a singular perspective. By discussing the book’s limitations and successes, readers are able to communicate ideas to their peers in accessible language, while still forming opinions and describing the influence of the given information. But the pretense of objectivity is not always upheld; readers are also able to describe how they felt about the text and why. People are comfortable to be themselves and, therefore, express themselves. Personal engagement is valued (but never mandatory): Stories of parents, a paper written two years ago or highly subjective aesthetic criticism are always appreciated.
At least, that’s what happens in good book clubs. The first book club I co-founded with friends collapsed after a few months, despite being quite wholesome (partially because I didn’t know how to voice my disagreement on badly written sci-fi novels, partially because I was third-wheeling. I remember looking down, picking at my pound cake with a fork instead of braving looking up and accidentally getting caught in the crossfire of intense, adoring eye contact). The second one also collapsed: It ended up being a virtual book club within a student organization of a bunch of engineers who weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to unmute and discuss James Baldwin or Margaret Atwood. Self-conscious of the apparent boredom in the Zoom room, I shut it down before it could sputter out completely. The third one, for United Asian American Organizations, was a success — as it ended at the tail end of the winter semester, the readers worked to find ways to maintain the space after I told them that I might not be able to host future meetings in the coming months. Currently, I’m anticipating facilitating another book club as soon as I find the time.
Whenever one collapses, I selfishly keep trying to cultivate these spaces: I miss being able to unlearn what I think I know — about a novel or about the world at large — through my peers. Because, as I’ve learned, people know more than you could conceptualize, and the sum of their shared family histories, stories from work, favorite movies, treasured recipes, careless doodles and personal experiences will add so much more to a story than you, or any singular person, could ever bring. Even after all these years, I think about what my favorite English teacher said about Curly from “Of Mice and Men.” I think about a joke someone made during the United Asian American Organizations’s Graphic Novel Book Club; whenever the technology failed as we were reading “The Best We Could Do,” they would sigh and say, “Really, it was the best I could do” (it was me, unfortunately). It never needs to be serious to mean something.
Because book clubs aren’t always that serious. In fact, their perceived “frivolousness” is something they can often be disparaged for; book clubs are usually thought of as an excuse for older women to gather with friends and drink wine under the presumed guise of a women’s fiction title or a paperback bodice-ripper romance often perceived as lacking substance. If you think this conception of book clubs is frivolous, then you should realize that you are missing out on knowledge that you will never be able to understand the world without.
And yes, book clubs are more than fun. Do they wield incredible power and harness tremendous benefits, such as those mentioned above? Of course. But a book club is still a book club. Replicating cycles of “achievement” in a space meant for low-stakes, casual conversation goes directly against the ethos of mundanity and consciousness that characterizes these discussions — you can’t win in a book club, and mass proliferation isn’t exactly feasible (unless, of course, you’re talking about religion, which, in a sense, is an entirely different structure — with a distinct purpose — of book clubs). The goal is never the standardized product of a school-mandated education that is prized in AP and IB exams, but a conscious process which can be stretched and personalized in a million different ways, since the lesson is controlled by, and for the hands, of those who are learning. Willing participants carry each other to new places while sharing disguised histories, baked into whatever they choose to contribute. Do they have the potential to fail? Absolutely! When taking education into your own hands, of course there will be blindspots and incongruities between what you want to learn and what you need to learn. Still, that doesn’t mean that what you want to learn in a book club is useless. It could be a terrible, fruitless discussion (which can happen, despite best efforts: Sometimes things shouldn’t be forced), or it could even espouse harmful rhetoric — which is the job of both the moderator and participants to prevent. Instead of being forced to memorize abstract theory with no context, you develop an internal framework through which you perceive the world.
Book clubs are about acknowledging humanity, both on the page and in real life. Hearing different people’s interpretations has moved me. Other people can help untangle a piece of art — seemingly a messy, incomprehensible knot — into traceable strings instead of viewing it as something to be misunderstood from afar. Thank you to all the book clubs I’ve been in, past and present. You’ve made me believe in what is yet to be read and written.
MiC Columnist Meera Kumar can be reached at email@example.com.