If a person with a background in literature leads a book group, it is usually fine. If an amateur runs it, it is often terrible.
I’ve been to all kinds of book groups: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I used to run a book group for people with chronic illnesses. I called it the Off Your Meds book group. Friends of friends of friends got the word out and quietly recruited people. Everybody in the group was ill with something, cancer, leukemia, heart disease, depression, bipolar disorder, HIV. Most wanted to be off their meds, because the pills made them sick–some drugs were actually poisonous–and they wished for God’s sake they could use herbal remedies instead. (Depending on how sick they were, sometimes that worked.)
I’m a lifetime reader, former teacher and book reviewer, and I can put together a discussion very quickly, and I must say this was a brilliant idea for a book group. (I sent the list of books to somebody in Syracuse : I wonder if she ever did anything with it.) We read a lot of obscure literary fiction and memoirs. “Where do you find these books?” said a woman who fell in love with Jonis Agee’s Resurrection.
I found books in bookstores, in the days when we still had bookstores. If you have the time to browse, even at chain bookstores, you can still find some stunning new books.
And I loved the people in my book group. They were of all backgrounds, rich and poor, all very smart, all very tolerant of each other’s frailties. Book group only lasted an hour, and afterwards we went out for pastry. There were usually ten of us, and though we didn’t have much in common, it was nice to get together every couple of months. “I’ve been nauseous for a month now on this f—–g pill,” or “I’ve gained 50 pounds on X,” “This pill ruined my liver,” or “It does nothing for me. But it’s even worse without.”
People came even when they were sick. One woman’s mother brought her when she was very ill with bipolar disorder. She talked very fast, and though she didn’t make much sense, I think she had read the book: she had been put on some very strong meds, and should have been in the hospital, but they don’t keep people in the hospital very long (which is fine if you have a mother, as she did, but maybe not so fine if you live alone on disability, as others did).
“I was damned if I was going to miss book group because of this f—-ing disease,” she told me later.
And I think it was damned fine she came to the group, I really do.
When I moved, I didn’t found a new Off Your Meds book group. You only do that once in your life.
I agreed to lead a Midwestern book group at Borders, but I changed my mind. I didn’t want to lead; I wanted to participate.
Some book groups are good, some are bad.
I attended a Great Books group, and it was the worst I ever attended
Most of you probably know about Great Books.
In 1947, Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard, two University of Chicago professors, founded the Great Books program to teach the classics to adults.
Things get a little crazy when you attend public book groups.
Imagine going to a discussion of Plato’s The Crito where the leader declares Socrates was “backwards” and thank God we have progressed.
I have a master’s in classics, and once read the Crito in Greek. If I’d known what the leader was like, I would have prepared a mini-lecture and whipped the group into shape. Only one other person in the group appreciated Plato. She said they never liked the books, but they were “nice people.”
I didn’t exactly see “nice” people there. I saw a bunch of people who needed a strong leader so the Crito would make sense to them.
I have a history with the Great Books groups. (So does my husband.) Many years ago, when I was ten or eleven, I was kicked out of the Junior Books Group. Well, the entire group was canceled, because the leaders were so angry at us. The selections were too young for us: Andersen’s Fairy Tales, Just So Stories, Treasure Island… My best friend and I cut Junior Great Books regularly (it was held on Saturdays) and read the Betsy-Tacy books instead (real Midwestern classics) or Jane Eyre.
And then the leaders canceled the group because none of us had read Treasure Island. Not a one! And all of us were readers.
My husband also signed up for Junior Great Books in his hometown, and had a similar experience. He didn’t read the books, either. He wanted to be out playing baseball. At the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, where we often see boxes of Great Books selections, we always laugh. Most of the books are made up of excerpts. As former teachers, neither of us approves of this approach.
Private book groups are really the best. Then you’re with your friends, or at least with people who know how to read.
But I recently attended a public book group discussion of Pride and Prejudice at a local bookstore. Fifteen women showed up, which was certainly encouraging.
I expected the women to like Jane Austen, but they were oddly critical. “We’ve progressed so much since Jane Austen’s day,” they told one another.
And one very nice woman had it mixed up with Jane Eyre. She kept wanting to know if we had read Jane Eyre.
Charlotte Bronte didn’t like Jane Austen.
I’m always open to trying a new book group, though. I belonged to a great science fiction group, but the leader moved away, and the group fell apart. (Sound familiar? Yes.)
And I simply can’t attend any classics book group anymore, because I f—–g know more about those ancient boys than the leaders do.
One of these days I’ll find another great book group, though. Maybe at the tiny indie…