I am an eternal optimist. This tendency to think things will work out for the best is sometimes at odds with my inner curmudgeon, but what can you do. I like to think this conflict keeps my also-inner Pollyanna in check, but sometimes, that Pollyanna is strong.
Take, for example, the time my book group read The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander. If you’ve read it, you know it’s a deeply affecting novel set in 1970s Argentina, about a Jewish fixer of sorts, Kaddish Pozman, and his wife and college-age son, Pato. If you haven’t read it, I’m about to spoil it. The son goes missing, and despite Pozman’s shady connections, the ending is ambiguous regarding his Pato’s fate.
At least I thought it was ambiguous. When I brought up the possibility that Pato might have survived his disappearance, well, the group laughed at me.
Before you rush to my defense (and thank you for that), I think it was more of a laugh of surprise. They didn’t know that my crusty shell held such a soft, gooey center!
Frankly, neither did I. But that’s the beauty of a book group, isn’t it? Not that people laugh at you for naïve optimism (which hopefully is an experience unique to me), but that we can read unexpected things that can teach us about ourselves.
I think all leisure reading helps us with our humanity. Like Atticus taught li’l Scout, you can’t really know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes. Reading gives us a safe space to walk. You’re not committing to a lifetime of misogynistic terrorism when you read American Psycho. You’re not even condoning it for a second, no matter how fascinating you find it inside Patrick Bateman’s head.
Not that it’s all military juntas and serial killers. But when a book gives us The Feels, it’s nice to be able to talk it out with other folks who understand the experience of reading.
(It’s also nice to have someone to be able to yell with when an ending goes tearfully awry—I’m looking at you, Me before You by Jojo Moyes.)
Add to that the truism that not everyone reads the same book. The Ministry of Special Cases is the perfect example—I read something ambiguous but potentially happy; everyone else in the world read it differently. Or M. L. Stedman’s The Light between Oceans and the terrible triangle that develops between Tom and Isabel and Hannah. Or just all of Junior and Oscar in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
Book clubs give us the chance to read complicated books whose emotional and intellectual impact can only be resolved when we talk it out. They give us a chance to not only walk in someone else’s shoes, but to see how someone else walked in someone else’s shoes. Layers upon layers, man.
And now for some shameless self-promotion:
All of this can make selecting titles for your group a little intimidating. And it can lead you to choose the same kind of book over and over again (hello, World War II fiction). But if you want to shake up your book group selections—and attract new members—come on down to Chicago’s Harold Washington Library on Thursday, February 22, at 2, when Booklist will be hosting a panel discussion, sponsored by our partner NoveList, on ROGUE BOOK GROUP CHOICES. We’d love to see you there, but if you’re not in the Chicago area, fear not: we will be streaming the event on Facebook live, and a video will appear in our next Corner Shelf newsletter.
Susan Maguire is the Editor of Collection Management and Library Outreach at Booklist.