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“What Not To Read” — A Different Sort Of Book Club

Josh Hanagarne

Staff Writer

Josh Hanagarne is a public librarian in Salt Lake City and spends his time at work trying to convince people that Nicholas Sparks is not a genre of one. He also knows how to tie a bow tie. Follow him on twitter: @joshhanagarne

I named the group “What Not To Read.”

The rules were simple. Each member of the book club (this was a one-time meeting at the library where I worked) had to bring at least one book that he or she absolutely hated, and talk everyone else out of reading it.

We agreed to be civil but ruthless.

We agreed to be thoughtful, not shrill. And if we needed to get shrill about something atrocious, we’d at least try to be brief.

We agreed to laugh a lot and avoid judgements about readers. All comments were directed at the text, the story, and/or the calamitous experience of reading the book.

I was the last one to arrive. I was thrilled to see the piles of books in front of each of the group’s nine members. The hate was strong.

These were all librarians or library staff. A couple were also writers. These were book people. They knew what they loved, and what they hated. I couldn’t wait.

One at a time, we each presented our book or books, discussed what had rankled so badly, and then everyone who wanted to got to comment.

Here is an incomplete list of the offenders:

Ulysses by James Joyce
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Four separate Princess Diana biographies (the librarian who brought these was so annoyed with them that I despaired of ever feeling anything as strong as her loathing–she was alive for those brief moments)
The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jane M. Auel
My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
And much more

We quickly realized that it was impossible to talk about the “worst” books without talking about the “best” books. By the end of the hour we’d spent far more time talking about books we loved than books we hated.

I loved The Poisonwood Bible. I also loved hearing someone talk about how much she hated it.

I hadn’t read The Mists of Avalon. It was the next book I read after the meeting, even though I was introduced to it via a torrent of venom.

Did I say it was fun? It was so fun.

In case you’re wondering, my choice was Ulysses. I almost hate to say it. I was an English major. I’m a writer. I know the the history of the book and the author very well, and I can admire the scope and ambition and playfulness of the novel. I’m sure it’s way, way more inventive and creative than I even think it is, and I spent a month reading a concordance of Ulysses that was longer than the book!  But I just can’t stand how it feels to read Ulysses. It took me ten years and at least that many attempts, and when I finished I did so with a huge sense of relief.

Nobody disagreed with me, but nobody in the group had read it.

Ulysses is one of the best books out there for many, many people I know. One of my professors in college was an eminent Joyce scholar and he could bring himself to tears just thinking about certain passages. But it’s not one of the best books for me.

Perhaps I’ll try again. No. I suspect not.

Regardless, if your book club is getting stale, or you’re just in the mood for something different, I can’t recommend this highly enough. Provided you have a group mature enough to avoid unseemly brawling.

Any Ulysses lovers here? Any appreciation tips, just in case I dive back in?

Have any of you done anything similar with a book group?


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