The Platonic Ideal of Book Clubs
I was in the perfect book club once. I know, I know, the perfect book club doesn’t exist, and it was probably only perfect for me. Since then, whenever I read a book and talk about it with other people, though, I want it to be like that.
I was living in Madrid, Spain, teaching English and constantly marveling at how unattached I was, unmoored – I didn’t know anyone. Sure, I skyped with people in the States still but realistically, I was one of those people that no one would be able to identify if they found me dead or something! I started joining clubs and events mostly to alleviate that feeling, not because I loved books.
Don’t get me wrong, I love books, but I have had negative interactions with discussions of “literature.” Most of the ones I’ve had were associated with classes and grades, which meant that people talked about books like they were writing a paper, like a performance rather than an exploration. I thought most of what was said was obvious, or untrue, or just boring. I didn’t believe, really, that books always needed to be discussed, and anyway, most of the people I’d had good discussions about books with were busy, always off doing cool things or reading more books, not talking about them.
In the perfect book club, though, I met really interesting people who had been meeting every month in an old coffee shop/bar in Madrid for years; the group was as small as 4 sometimes and as big as 12 other times, but it always had a few things going for it:
The people there knew how to talk about things they had read before that month: I’ve watched people namedrop books in groups where no one has the same reading list, and it can be painful, but these folks were just eager to share leads on great books. “You like this aspect of it? You’d love this other book.” I felt like I was constantly absorbing good ideas for my next read, and I actually got to the point where I could share with other people some potential ideas too, without looking pretentious or like I was trying to prove my experience as a reader.
The people found a way to bring every part of the discussion back to the book: While it wasn’t a rule, we didn’t really discuss outside affairs, our personal lives, how the book related to us or our experiences specifically. I know some people love that, but I really liked that we stayed in the “world” of the books most of the time; it made occasional bits of personal information seem really important, not like someone was trying to sidetrack us into talking about his or her life.
Everyone either read the book or admitted they didn’t and spoke little: This wasn’t a book club that pretended to read the book in order to hang out with each other (that’s another kind of fun club, but I don’t think it’s really a book club). Those who couldn’t finish the book but didn’t mind the spoilers would come just to hear their smart and interesting friends talk about it, not to talk themselves. That was me once in a while, and I didn’t mind even a little.
They kept the expectations simple: One book a month, and never more meetings than once a month. Most months, at least one regular couldn’t make it, but there were enough to sustain that. When I left Madrid, it was one of the groups I missed most acutely, of all the people I ended up meeting.
They met up more frequently for optional, non-book events: When a play or an opera or some other performance that one person was interested in seeing was in town, all would be invited to accompany, and no one talked about books there. The book meetings were kept separate from the social events, but both could take place.
This isn’t the ideal book club for everyone, but I find that this really worked for me and for the other attendees. I personally loved that our book club had people of all different ages, native speakers of Spanish and of English, with all kinds of occupations as well; college and high school classes lacked quite a bit of life-experience diversity for me, which meant the perspective from which everyone read the books was notably similar. In Spain, I was always realizing new meaning when others noticed aspects of books that I passed over as unimportant.
I am not in a book club right now, but it seems like it’s my responsibility, now that I’ve experienced the platonic ideal of a book club, to start my own on the same principles. That might just have to be my new project.