Do you belong to a reading group?
For me, a book group combines two of the things I love most in this world: books and traditions. One of the most satisfying things I ever did was belonging to the same book group for 20 years.
I want to share some of the best books we read, but I also want to share some of the rituals that made the experience richer.
The group began shortly after I moved to New York City. My friend and agent Geri Thoma and I decided to start a group and Geri declared: “I read bad books by living people for work, so we are only going to read good books by dead people!” Thus we embarked on a mission to read only “classics” and we stuck with fiction, mostly novels. I think having some sort of theme or area of concentration is a great idea for reading groups, and helps when trying to assemble a like-minded group of readers. Sticking to an organizing principle means that the more books you read, the more you can explore and comment on them in relation to one another, giving you a deeper understanding.
Book groups vary in their rules and composition. Ours was about half men, half women. We switched between different members’ apartments, and we always had dinner first.
There was a strict rule that the book could not be discussed while eating, and that once we started the discussion, no chitchat was allowed. But it was wonderful having a very social meal, where we could get caught up on everyone’s private life before plunging into a serious discussion.
The members were extremely well-read and discussions ranged from lively to heated. It was such a joy to read novels I had read as an English major (or should have), but with plenty of time to digest them, and no tests or grades. We devoured multiple tomes by some of my favorite authors including Dickens, Wharton, Conrad, and Austen.
At the same time, I made new discoveries, reading major authors like Anthony Trollope, Emile Zola and Ralph Ellison for the first time. I don’t think I ever would have tackled the Mt. Olympus of James Joyce’s Ulysses without the support of this group, but it was so worth reading and discussing. Who knew that Emile Zola wrote a page-turning novel about shopping (The Ladies’ Paradise)? How had I ever missed Middlemarch? And where had British author George Gissing been hiding all my life?
The closer the group got over the years, the more we started creating traditions. One of the best was turning the December meeting into an annual Christmas party. This included voting for the best and worst book of that year, as well as the best discussion. Also, we each brought a gift-wrapped book and had a gift grab bag.
We met 10 times a year, taking off August and one other month. It was good to schedule a mega-tome like War and Peace for when we had two months to read. Most summers, we would spend a weekend at the summer lake house of one of the members in an exercise we called Book Group Summer Camp, and this was heavenly.
If you are in a book group you love, consider ways to celebrate and deepen your connections. When our group turned 10 years old, we had a wonderful party with a book-shaped cake, and I had special bookmarks made for party favors.
We even had signature gifts for special occasions: any member of the book group who got married, was given a set of bookends featuring the famous lions that guard the New York Public Library. And, when a book grouper had a baby, each member gave the parents a wrapped copy of his or her favorite children’s book.
It was difficult to commute to a NYC book group from Princeton, so I stopped going a few years back, but I have indelible memories of this wonderful group of people and the 200 books we read together. What brought it all back to me was a request for a charity auction item. I decided to put together 10 Amazing Classics Most People Haven’t Read, and share some of the group’s greatest “finds,” including The Odd Women by George Gissing and Germinal by Emile Zola. Would you like to see my full list of 10, with my reasons for the picks? Just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send it to you.
Meanwhile, what about you? What do you like best about your book group?
Please share some of you favorite reading group books – and traditions.
And if you have never tried a classics book group — Do It!!!!