Our Reading Lives

When Your Book Club Asks Too Much of You

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Michelle Anne Schingler, a former librarian and Hebrew school teacher, is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. Her days are books, books, books; she knows how lucky that makes her.  Twitter: @mschingler

Fellow book clubbers: is saying “absolutely not!” to a group selection verboten, or just in poor taste?

My question conceals one relevant fact–that I’m a book club leader, and therefore should probably hold myself to a stricter standard than other members. It also presumes that healthy book clubs exist in symbiosis, and sustain themselves by a lot of member compromises.

I do my best to respect that relationship. For example: though in my individual reading life I generally avoid pastel covers, the first month’s selection after I joined our club was a hyper-pastel novel, Kristin Hannah’s Home Front, a novel that I would never–never, ever, ever–pick up of my own volition in a book store. But I was the upstart, I wanted to come in showing deference to the pre-established group, I didn’t want to begin by balking. So I read it. I had a good cry on a plane. I was probably better for the experience.

The sweet, opinionated Southern ladies–and recently, two occasional men–who comprise my club have continued to push my boundaries and expand my literary horizons that way. I had a moratorium on Orson Scott Card owing to his caustic ideas about the LGBT community, but the club selected Ender’s Game one month, so I dove in. I was glad for it. (Now I’m just left wondering how a man who writes so empathetically can have such a significant blind spot toward some of his neighbors.)

I thought I hated Catcher in the Rye, but their enforced second reading cured me of that. I absolutely loved Candice Millard’s River of Doubt, a book I likely never would have chosen for myself at random. And even the selections I walk away loathing–Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings comes to mind, if mostly because our discussion didn’t move far beyond the kind-slave-owner trope–are a book under the belt, an insight, a way for me to become a better librarian with a more well-rounded sense of what’s on our shelves.

I have not said no. They have, in return, not said no to my selections: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union as my introductory favorite-book selection, and the steady stream of Jewish fiction titles that followed it. They don’t always love the books I choose, either. But we respect each other. Our conversations are rich for the disagreement.

I have not said no. Or had not. In the midst of a round of reader selections, the only guideline being “a title you have not read, but have been meaning to,” one of the members crossed my invisible line. He chose Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. All the balking I’d suppressed since the first pastel color proposal came forward full force. I confirmed with the rest of the members that they were game for the some twelve hundred pages, and I penciled his choice in, but I was already looking for the exit.

I could not make myself go full Rand. I know enough about her philosophies to know what a thousand plus pages of them would do to my blood pressure. She’s a no-good people-hater. She’s a foul and nasty selfishness-promoter. I cringed as the month approached, and my internal no no no finally won out.

Here’s the whole list of the sins I’ve committed against my club (other than being a little erratic): I lied to them. I passed the buck. I invented other plans for the month, and I implored the co-worker who teaches Rand to take over discussion for me. I wiggled away from John Galt, and I didn’t miss him in the least.

I didn’t confess to the club until this month–a month to which I’d added two extra meetings without consulting them, as well as a movie excursion, all in the name of Harper Lee, and in which my capricious leadership had most certainly worked against them time-wise. I waited for a meeting that our Rand-selector missed. I was half-sheepish.They were forgiving.

But the once-Catholic in me can’t help wondering if I’ve done something that, according to book club codes, is ultimately unforgivable. Have I undermined our symbiosis? Can I now reasonably expect them to read everything I choose, or is this a free pass to miss the months featuring books we’re just not interested in? Wouldn’t the whole thing unwind if members pulled at that thread?

What do readers who agree to read in sync owe to each other, precisely?