I oversee a book club in the church where I work. We haven’t come up with a name more descriptive or imaginative than “book club,” so many people assume we’re a lot like the stereotype: women who gather to discuss the latest Oprah pick and drink lots of wine. We do drink wine and share a meal together every time we meet, but no Oprah books for us. And there are men in our group, too. And our members range in age from their early 30s to their late 60s. (One woman in an assisted-living community is a “virtual” member, keeping up with the club through our email discussions; she’s in her mid 90s).
We began the book club almost four years ago with Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name. We invited Tim to our church to talk about race in America and racism in the church, and he regaled us with his storyteller’s wit and challenged us with his historian’s candor about the sad state of affairs in white southern churches. Tim is now something of a local celebrity and Blood is currently being made into a big-time Hollywood movie. We in the book club like to say we knew him when.
From the beginning we’ve imagined membership in the book club to be something of a spiritual discipline—a way to read texts communally; to wrestle with moral questions large and small; to sharpen our critical thinking skills and our powers of observation; to be moved by the beauty and power of language and to share that experience with friends who savor that same, simple joy.
We read widely across genres and we choose our books simply: we nominate favorites and then vote on them, narrowing down to the nine books we’ll read in a calendar year. As the overseer of the club, I have the power to break ties in the voting process and/or distribute the “weight” if we’re tending toward too many titles in the same category. This power has been a lesson in humility for me: I’ve had to read books with this group that I would never have chosen myself (and have learned to keep in check my snobbery about certain kinds of books and authors). But these friends have also humored me by going along with some of my literary idiosyncrasies. We’re all better friends (and more accomplished readers) because we have been willing to read books outside of our preference zone.
Which isn’t to say we haven’t experienced our share of duds. One of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels goes down in our collective memory as a real clunker. I’m sure it wasn’t a bad book, but, for us, at the time, it just didn’t resonate. And we’ve also gotten into some heated disagreements over the years. Earlier this year The Wal-Mart Effect touched nerves that brought out defensiveness in some, a little smugness in others (me, especially); the air was pretty thick with tension that night. But we try to see our arguing primarily as a way of clarifying difference, as a way to persuade amiably—not as a battle to win or as a game of one-upmanship. Besides, there’s always too much good food and contagious laughter to stay mad for very long.
June is our last month of the 2007-08 book club season. We take a whole month off and start anew in August. So for the last few days I’ve been reading a book with this cheery title: Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. We’ve joked about this book all year—wondering how we could close out our year on such a morbid note. (My bad: every summer I put the upcoming books in reading order). It turns out, though, that this book about death is really about life, and I am looking forward to a summer evening with friends who, by their willingness month after month, year after year, to read together, eat together, laugh and argue, have made my own life richer and fuller.
(Originally published Saturday, June 14, 2008)