Thursday, May 5, 2016

Adding to the conversation

Two books I've read over the past several months made references to book discussion groups, one positive and one negative. These might be worth a few comments.

The more positive remarks can be found in David Denby's Lit Up. He writes, "They enjoyed not just the books but the act of reading together. You couldn't have asked more of any book club." A few pages later he adds, "The English Department at Mamaroneck wanted to achieve in ninth- and tenth-grade students something like the morale of a good book club -- what Miss Clain called 'a social culture of reading.'"

Now Denby's is writing primarily about high school English classes, not book clubs, but the comparison he makes is to book clubs, where people attend because they want to attend, read the books because they want to read and discuss those books because they want to discuss them. Those are the criteria for an ideal book club, but they are also the criteria for an ideal English class.

Now here's what Joe Queenan says about book clubs in One for the Books:

"I would rather have my eyelids gnawed on by famished gerbils than join a book club. Book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. What might that be? A book is a series of arguments between the author and the reader, none of which the reader can possibly win."

And later, "Book discussion clubs have almost nothing to do with books. This may be why they do rarely choose good books."

And still later, "The people I know who attend book clubs are generally intelligent, but they are rarely what I would call interesting."

So Queenan attacks book clubs, the members of these clubs and the books they read. The books selected by most book groups are probably not among literature's finest. But so what? These people are reading, enjoying what they're reading and enjoying talking about it, just like those high school students Denby's writes about. This may not be Queenan's cup of tea, just as it is not mine as I wrote yesterday, but that doesn't mean it can't be of value to someone else.

The most disturbing comment Queenan makes concerns "the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation. This seems like an odd thing for a sometime book reviewer to write, for what does a book reviewer do but add to the conversation? What is the author saying and how well does he say it? These are questions any book critic and, indeed, any reader is free to address. When you read a book you are free to talk about it and interpret it as you will.

Last night I watched the movie Broken Flowers and later a short film about the movie on the DVD. Here director Jim Jarmusch says, speaking of his films, "It's not my job to even know what they mean." What they mean, he suggested, is up to each person who watches them. "Their interpretation of them is way more valuable than my own." What's true for movies must be true for books, as well. Each reader adds to the conversation, and book clubs may not be such a bad way to do it.

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