Thursday, January 23, 2014

Better Together

I have never been part of a reading group - not yet. I suspect it would feel like the best moments of a college literature course -  the intense discussions, the never before thought of ideas -  only with couches and coffee, and wonderful friends. Some of you reading this have had the experience. So tell me: Would it be like that?

CS Lewis described something like it in his first acquaintance with his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves:

I found Arthur sitting up in bed. On the table beside him lay a copy of Myths Of the Norsemen.
"Do you like that?" said I.
"Do you like that?" said he.
Next moment the book was in our hands, our heads were bent close together, we were pointing,  quoting,  talking - soon almost shouting - discovering in a torrent of questions that we liked not only the same thing, but parts of it in the same way.
Maybe being in a reading group would feel like that. Or like the moment I discovered that Bonnie too had read Let the Great World Spin. Like me, she had found it to be a remarkably redemptive novel despite the odd thing author Collum McCann had done in showing us one luminous,  unforgettable character for the first small bit of the story, then taking him away and for the rest of the book, dragging us through a world that bore some resemblance to our own, and a striking resemblance to hell. The thing McCann did was to show us the ripples one luminous life made in a hellish world. And Bonnie saw it.

I imagine a good reading group could change the world , don't you?

Lewis seemed to think so. In The Four Loves, he describes a friendship like the one he enjoyed with Arthur Greeves, that begins with "What? You too? I thought I was the only one." He continues:

But as long as each of these percipient persons dies without finding a kindred soul, nothing (I suspect) will come of it; art or sport or spiritual religion will not be born. It is when two such persons discover one another, when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings, or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision...
And the world changes.

It makes me wonder who Martin Luther King Jr spoke to after he read the life story of Gandhi. Did some friend see what he saw in that book? Would life be the same if King had not found that friend?

Have any of you taken part in a reading group or are you in one now? Does it make a difference?

Please do share.


Susie Finkbeiner said...

I've been in a few reading groups during my adult life. They were fun. But, honestly, I was never interested in the same books as they were.

However, I used to sit in the office of my English professor. We'd talk about books. Argue over the merits of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Quote Shakespeare. Discuss Steinbeck (swoon). Talk about theological themes throughout literature. I miss those days. We still have those discussions when I visit the college.

Oh. And I'd always walk away from his office with a stack of books in my arms. Extra credit, he called it. I considered it him sharing his treasure with me.

Patti Hill said...

There is nothing quite as fun as discussing a story or nonfiction selection that unites the interests and world views of two to twenty people. My book club isn't like that. We frequently read books that I would never in a million years pick. BUT the discussions are very stimulating and I am changed. That's a start.

Steve G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bonnie Grove said...

I remember returning to university as a mature student. The English Department constantly trying to recruit me (I was a psych major). It was often as if the professor and I were the only ones in the room. He had youthful enthusiasm, and a PhD, I had only experience on life's back roads, and a hunger for books. We discussed books back and forth, the rest of the class looking on dazed, likely bored, but I loved it. He never wanted to argue anything with me except post-modernism, but I wouldn't argue. Only tried to point out how he had misread the map.
I haven't had anything like that in years.
If I could craft a reading group of my own choosing, I would pluck each member from this crew of Novel Matters friends and readers.

Megan Sayer said...

I didn't study literature at uni, I studied art...but the conversations and enlivenment I'm sure were very much the same. I miss it, too, although I'm aware that we've all grown up since then and have far, far less time to delve into ideas the way we once did.
I tried a reading group for a while a couple of years ago, but I ended up quitting because, again, of time constraints. I wanted to read what I wanted to read, not what others did, and although I enjoyed many of the books that were chosen, I thought like a writer more than purely like a reader - like looking at a jacket and appreciating the weave and the sewing technique rather than just seeing if it fits.
But I imagine a good reading group could change the world, yes, especially if it were made up of writers who could use those thoughts to influence their work, to grow each other not just as readers but as contributors as well.
It often saddens me when I finish a book that there's nobody really to discuss it with. For a little while I tried book reviews, and Amazon reviews, even Goodreads, but I've discovered the difficult politics that come with reviewing fiction in a public space (eeek!) and decided that discussions that involved walls and couches and coffees and people were imminently more useful, and practical. Sometimes now, when I've just finished a book I'm sure a friend would love, I simply imagine discussing it with them. It's not quite the same, but it's nice.

Kathleen Popa said...

Susie, what a wonderful professor you had - still have. And he must just love you. Your college days sound wonderful, and your relationship with him is very special.

Bonnie, your experiences sound wonderful too. I hope you won an argument or two. I suspect you did.

Patti, that's my big fear of reading groups: that they would make me read books I didn't want to read.

Megan, I love the idea of discussions that move couches. Exactly. That's exactly the idea.

I would join a reading group made up of all of us.