Once a month, I meet with a group of whip-smart ladies in Sheep Meadow to discuss books. I leave in a kind of intellectually-charged daze, my mind alight with new observations and re-readings of the book at hand. This book club has reminded me why book clubs exist: to make us better readers. It has revealed to me — in a way that teaching and studying in the classroom never did — that there are different kinds of readers. In school, there was a kind of prescriptiveness to the sorts of observations we were able to make. We never talked about whether we liked Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Hester Prynne or Humbert Humbert, or whether we felt that a particular authorial strategy worked or not, or whether the book was just too damned long. Instead, we focused on identifying the devices at play in a given text, unpacking the language, charting the course of a particular theory through the plot in front of us, tracing the cultural and literary and familial influences that may have shaped the design of the book. There was something borderline scientific about it, as if we were pinning insects to a board and itemizing their parts with numbers. “Yes, yes — 3a., catachresis used here.” But I’ve come to learn that this academizing of the act of reading — while it made me appreciate and respect The Author and The Text — subjugated the very human impulse to decide for myself whether or not I cared about the characters. Whether or not the book was fun to read. Whether or not I would recommend it to a friend, a sister, a colleague. Every book was important, serious, worthy by virtue of its inclusion on the syllabus — whether it was a joy to read or not. (No thank you, Waverly.) My book club has restored a sense of readerly humanity to me, has granted me permission to emote around books in a way I’ve not indulged since I was a teen. It has made me realize that good readership can come in many forms, and I’d like to acknowledge those forms here:
Thank you, Jess, my strong feminist reader. I find myself smirking as I read a particularly gender-charged section: “Aha, just wait until Jess sees this passage; she’s going to have a field day.” I love your conviction, your passion, your occasional contrarian-ness. You add rich color to our conversations, and I respect your willingness to stake an alternative reading when the group seems to have swung in a different direction.
Thank you, Diana, for your groundedness, for showing me how to connect to characters who are so different from me. Your empathy for the characters in books — your willingness to meet them where they are, understand them without passing judgement — astounds me. You are generous in the way you read.
Thank you, Charlotte, for your laser-sharp observations. Nothing slips by you. You are one of the most alert, diligent readers I’ve ever encountered, and I can always count on you to call out a character or author for something untoward or unlikeable or problematic. I think mainly of you when I am scoring these books. “Charlotte will disagree, but I’m giving this a generous four…”
Thank you, Inslee, for the biting wit and skepticism with which you read; you make even the dryest of books racy and hilarious. Of everyone in the book club, I’m always most surprised by what you have to say; I can never predict whether you will like or hate something, will laugh or nod at something. But whatever it is, you will startle me with your well-observed (often sardonic) commentary.
Thank you, Susie, for your inquisitiveness, your curiosity. I love that you return to and re-read passages to make sure you understand what has happened. You demonstrate such devotion and earnestness in your reading that it makes me want to be more careful in my reading.
Thank you, Diana, for your lowkey brilliance. You will shruggingly toss out an observation that entirely reshapes the way I think about a character, a plot line, an authorial decision. “Yeah, well, she needed to tell the story that way in order to build suspense,” you’ll say, picking at a blade of grass and glancing around unassumingly. BOOM. My understanding of the book has been reformed.
Thank you, Gina, for your investment in the books and characters we read. I know few people who care more about what happens in literature than you do — the way you talk about characters and plotlines, with such passion and empathy and frustration, engages me deeply in the books we read, makes me see the books as extensions of our own experiences.
ICYMI: please read along! And if you’re in NYC, shoot me an email to reserve a spot for our next gathering. We’ll be meeting in the art studio of the fabulously talented Inslee, who just recently sent me this moving article on french fries and parenting that had us both in tears.
Post Script: The Best Books I’ve Read in the Last Two Years.
We talked about a lot of books on this blog, but here is a shortlist — the can’t miss, must read of the bunch.
+All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva. Easily my favorite book we’ve read in book club thus far. Wildly imaginative, creepy, provocative. The stories sit with you for a long while. Full review here.
+The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine. In a totally different category: this chick lit thriller slayed me. I was reading into the wee hours of the morning with this one. I can’t recall the last time a book shocked me as much as this one did. Such a thrill ride.
+In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. This quiet little book on language and identity doubles back on itself. It reads simply but you’ll find yourself treading in deep waters, mulling over the metacommentary for weeks after. But what is language after all? you’ll find yourself wondering. Potent, big stuff.
+Upstream by Mary Oliver. A poetic, stirring set of musings on nature and life and boundaries and blurrings between them. This left me philosophical.
+The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini. One of the funkiest, richest books I’ve ever read. A lot happening here on the gender front between love and sexual assault, patriarchies and matriarchies, inheritances and bloodlines, silence and speech. Very very very very weird and very very very very good.
+Open by Andre Agassi. OK, I might have read this over two years ago. But just over. This was one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. A fascinating and insightful (poetic!) look at tennis and its psychology, plus juicy drama about one of the biggest sports stars of the 90s. Really good read.
What about you? If you could nominate just one book as the best book you’ve read in the last two years, what would it be?
P.P.S. In case you’re already on the hunt for a festive look for the holiday circuit: this blouse or — wait for it — this epic $98 dress, which feels like a more sophisticated approach to glitter. Kind of like my boots in that cool gunmetal hue. LOVE.
P.P.P.S. 10 books that will change your life.