I’m all for book groups. In theory, at least. In practice, not so much. I’ve tried, but failed, several times to remain a member of one. I could argue (and I have) that this is because too many of these groups evolve into competitive-cooking, wine-swilling, salacious gossip sessions, but, actually, that’s the part I like. What I don’t like, I’ve discovered, is the book part. For me, there is something that happens to the whole experience of reading when it is done for the purpose of shared group discussion. It changes into something other: an assignment, a task. It becomes more codified and self-conscious, less private, interior, and mysterious.
The book, no matter how good it is, seems to get diminished in the process – reduced to a topic, a lesson — these days, often complete with a list of dopey study questions in the back. Even worse, because of group dynamics, sometimes it turns out that you are letting a book you love get thrown to the wolves. In my first group when it was my turn to select the next book, I chose Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, one of my all-time best-of-the-best, go-to books. We gathered on the appointed night in the living room of our hostess, Ms. C. I settled into a chair, happily, innocently looking forward to hearing others extol what I already knew: the mix of sharp humor and deep sadness, the eye for detail, the spare and perfect pitch of the prose.
“Well.” It was Ms. C herself who fired the opening salvo. “I’m afraid I have to say that was one of the most boring books I’ve ever read.”
I sat, stunned. It was as if she’d just proclaimed that my children were homely. It was as if she’d pierced me through the heart. When others began to nod in agreement with her and pile on, it was all I could do not to scream, “murderers!” and bolt from the room.
Clearly I’m not book club material, no matter how appealing the whole idea keeps seeming. So in the New Year, while I resolve not to join any more groups, I still plan to find plenty of great reading, both in fiction submissions to Streetlight and in the books I will read on my own and may never have to discuss with anybody if I don’t want to. A great starting point for that might be in this amazing compendium of best books of 2012 put together by Random House. There are some seventy lists here, covering every genre you can think of – and, while there are overlaps, no two lists are the same. The lack of any clear consensus makes me happy. Nobody has the final word on what defines a good book. Not even Ms. C.
– Suzanne Freeman, Fiction Editor