Why Book Chat Is Hard & Four Literary Links


Why is it so hard to talk about books?

The first time I read Anna Karenina, I wanted to share it with someone. I dragged my huge paperback copy to work and to restaurants and read it in hallways between classes, but none of my friends had read it.   I kept up with Cicero and Homer but bluffed my way through German and chemistry until I turned the last page of Anna.  I was swept away by life in nineteenth-century Russia.  I empathized with beautiful, kind, intelligent Anna, who leaves her husband and son to live with her lover, Vronksy, whom she meets, ironically, on a visit to fix the marriage of her brother Stiva and  sister-in-law Dolly, who is shattered when she learned of Stiva’s  affair with the governess.

“This is such a brilliant book,” I told my then boyfriend.  He sat smoothing his moustache and staring at a cup of coffee, because he was extremely hung over.  He was a big-time partier, a guy who told stories about getting kicked out of the Peace Corps because of his antics at a fiesta. It is a sign of my tremendous immaturity that I thought this anecdote funny.

And so I had to talk to other people about Anna Karenina. I needed a book group!  A friend and I occasionally got together at Grace and Rubie’s, a women’s club in Iowa City, for book talk. I chatted earnestly about Levin and Kitty, my favorite romantic (though not very romantic) couple in the book, and between my blathering she talked  about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  It was cross-talk, since neither of us had read the other’s books, but it is comforting for readers to spend time with each other.

Is it hard for you to chat about books?  I can put down on paper what I cannot express in talk.

That’s one reason blogs are so nice.  I find it easier to share my enthusiasm on paper, though still not very easy.


  1. crowley engine-summer2At Tor’s science fiction blog, Caitlyn Paxson writes about finding the right book at the right time.

She begins:

I spent my 16th year as an exchange student in France, living with a French family, attending a French school, and being completely immersed in the language—which I barely spoke a word of when I arrived. Even though I was an obsessive reader, I left my books at home. The whole point, I’d reasoned, was to forsake English for a year while I learned a different language. I rapidly realized my mistake—I was forlorn without books that I could understand.

So I wrote a letter to my Great Aunt Joan. In my reading life, my Aunt Joan was the Gandalf to my Frodo, the Merlin to my Arthur. She was responsible for most of the great literary loves of my childhood: the Moomins, Oz, the Dark is Rising series—all of them came from her. I wrote to her and I told her how forsaken I felt without any books that spoke to my heart.

The book was John Crowley’s Engine Summer.

Amanda Peet

Amanda Peet

2 At Lenny, the actress Amanda Peet writes about drawing the line at plastic surgery.

It’s painfully obvious, but I’m still ashamed to admit this: I care about my looks. How else can I explain my trainer, stylist, and Barney’s card? I’ve bleached my teeth, dyed my hair, peeled and lasered my face, and tried a slew of age-defying creams. More than once, I’ve asked the director of photography on a show to soften my laugh lines. Nothing about this suggests I’m aging gracefully.

Yet for me, it would be crossing the Rubicon to add Botox and fillers into the mix. I want to look younger (and better), trust me. The only reason I don’t do it is because I’m scared.

We hear you, Amanda.  I  look like a witch now but still wouldn’t consider Botox or plastic surgery.

3. The blogger Kate MacDonald writes amusingly about Dorothy Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise.

4 And at the Picador blog, you can read a list of Ten Books about Cults.  (The only one I know is Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, which I wrote about here.)


10 thoughts on “Why Book Chat Is Hard & Four Literary Links

  1. I think possibly the reason I started blogging was to talk to people about books because I’m not exactly surrounded by fellow readers…. And it’s easier to put it into writing because you have to structure it and actually *say* something rather than just fangirling away about how wonderful a book is (which I have been known to do). Thanks also for the links – Kate’s piece about the Sayers is excellent.


  2. Oh, and on the books about cults thing, The Secret History is well worth your time. It’s the only Tartt I’ve enjoyed (I hated the follow up and haven’t bothered with the Goldfinch) and it really was very good.


    • Oops, I actually have read The Secret Hisotry! Apparently I forgot between the time I copied the link and posted this. I can’t read The Goldfinch–I read a few pages and just can’t commit the tim.e.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I had no time for book clubs or reading groups in my former life abroad and in Paris. I had my family to talk with and then, after all, I was reading literature in one of the most prestigious French school! 😉 (tongue in cheek).I tried to create a reading group that would read in French and English for the British ex-pats trying to tak in French and the French people who would be interested in learning English, here in the country. Nobody was interested. Nobody was interestted by any reading group. So, I never could find whetther I would like to speak about books!
    I am grateful to list servs and online reading groups. But it is no real conversation as one has to write down one’s thoughts.
    Blogging was a way to write and talk about books (talk is allowed by comments – it is rather like on list servs, but shorter) but my book reviewing is never straight and about oe book only. Books are too much interwoven with my life.


    • Yes, book clubs can be very hard to organize. I’ve been in a few good ones, but not so much in recent years. They’re too light for me, though I do like light fiction. Yes, the listserves are excellent. I read so much Trollope with Ellen (and then went on to read most of the rest!).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve gone to a four sessions of reading groups where there was no official “leader” or facilitator (say a librarian at the library, or the person whose house the group is meeting at), and found that for three after about 5 or 10 minutes or so at most of an attempt to talk about the book, the conversation turned to something else. Not enough people in the group had thought about what they had read seriously, or maybe they didn’t know how to talk about a book (except gossip about characters which was part of the talk) or just were embarrassed. In the fourth case a couple of us tried to keep up real talk about themes but someone interrupted and said firmly she didn’t care for this kind of talk, really didn’t want to talk about a book this way. We were putting it in historical context so it was not embarrassing. A Jane Austen group had 5 questions which were supposed to be amusing.

    I did see in the other three that my views of the book would not have been the typical ones of the group at all. I would have had to keep silent if they had proceeded. What was implied was complaints or judgemental talk

    I also went for about a year to a translator’s group: we were all to bring our translations of poems. At first although taking out the translations took time, when we did, we really did discuss them for say nearly an hour (maybe): each person had a poem, say 6. But it deteriorated into too much criticism that was tactless of some of the poems and eventually it was just people having afternoon tea. I left before they tried to revive the purpose of group — I heard they did that.

    In conference sessions you can sometimes get wonderful talk but often it doesn’t happen. People worry how they look (careers are often involved, relationships with others), if they will offend, don’t want to hurt someone who has worked so hard on a paper, don’t know enough about the topic at hand. But you can get good talk. Last night at the Smithsonian I heard a wonderful good talk by Deborah Lutz on her _The Bronte Cabinet_ which I mean to blog about and after for about half an hour there really was intelligent talk about the Brontes and their books. It was a tribute to Lutz, who is an excellent teacher is my guess.

    You do need a teacher or official person and it needs to be set up so that this is the center of the raison d’etre. Until I came onto the Net and ran books groups here — where writing selves have time and space – and wrote blogs I hardly ever had any talk about books except in classrooms. Classrooms have their own problems: only a few people talk, grades are often at risk; people haven’t read the book.

    Maybe it’s that not enough people care about books as much as they do social relationships or what’s called “life” whose meaning as a word I’ve yet to figure out. People also fear revealing themselves; not that someone will say anything aloud but they worry what others think.


    • I have heard so much about that Lutz book! I do hope to read it eventually.
      Yes, with book groups almost everything depends on the leader. A good leader keeps the group on tack. I have heard a I actually miss a group at B&N, where the discussion didn’t go on too long, but all the women were very keen readers. But after Borders closed they closed down their book groups.
      Writers’ groups can be brutal. Most of the criticism turns out to be pointless, too. I love the idea of them, but it’s hard to find a really good one. Sometimes they are very supportive, and that’s the group we all want.


  5. I have a hard time talking about books informally. One of my least favorite things is having someone ask me about a book I’m reading in public – my dentist is dreadfully prone to this. I appreciate that they want to make conversation, but I don’t necessarily want to talk about the book at the moment, I just want to read it.

    I would like to try a book club, where I would be actually going in with the intention to talk about books. I was in one belonging to my college alumni association long ago and we did a fairly good job of talking about the topic at hand, although there was a certain amount of chitchat.


    • Oh, LOL, I’ve had similar experiences at the dentist’s, etc. What on earth can you say? “It’s about…” Well, what??? An alumni association sounds perfect for a book group.


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