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Reading Groups

They've become a cultural phenomena and they are ubiquitous. Publishers encourage them and add talking points to the back of the book targeted at reading groups. These pages often include interviews with the author, biographical information, and advertisements for other books by the same author, or other authors. This is all good news: people are reading, people are interested in how writers work, how the work began, what a writing day is like. And, when they get together, they like to talk about their experience of the book: characters, plot, the story itself, how they relate to the story and characters. If the book is nonfiction, the discussion can be equally engaging and informative.

I have belonged to more than one reading group and, like writing groups, they seem to have a lifespan, some longer than others. I have found that they work best when discussion is orderly, when they are mixed male and female, when they are ethnically and age diverse, when they have both writers and devoted readers who are not writers, and when people stop talking and listen to one another.

Recently, I left one group because it had become too social, focused more on food and drink, and less on discussion about the books. Three of the ten or so members were writers, the others well read readers, but the shift from discussing the book in-depth to the food and drink would not abate. So I left.

Then I was invited into another group, none of whom are writers. They had met each other in the laundry room, elevators and foyer of the condo where they live, and had started the group on a whim. They all lived in the same line, so they were fated, one of the members told me. Meetings rotated from one floor to another, all with beautiful views of downtown Manhattan and distinctive d├ęcor. They were mostly book club "virgins" and, when I arrived, they solicited suggestions: Should there be food? A presenter? Who selects the book? And so on. About half the group was high-brow, the other half low-brow never having read any literary fiction; one or two were able to toggle between the two. The first book I read as a member of this group was the second of the Stieg Laarsen trilogy-- "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest," not a book I would have ever chosen to read on my own. No matter: I was curious. My doctor had recommended "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" in the midst of my annual exam, not a moment I take any such recommendations seriously. I had ignored him, and then seen all the movies. Mostly, I was interested in Lisbeth Salander, Laarsen's vigilante, his alter ego, the woman who gets the bad guys when he--in his too short life-- could not. And this is what I wanted to discuss with the group: the phenomena of the Laarsen trilogy. Anyone who knows anything about writing agrees that the books are not well written plus they are in translation. So I was astounded when the group was so swept away by the story and the characters that they could not stand back and discuss the book as a piece of writing. Why should I have been surprised? They were ordinary readers. They read the way most people read. Only the writer toils month after month, year after year, to make a book that works. Genre fiction, literary fiction, or nonfiction, it makes no difference. Writers toil and readers who are not writers read mostly for pleasure. The book is read, it's done, they liked it or didn't, and they move on. For some reason, I found this realization wounding. I don't know why, but I did. This new group didn't care one whit about the writing per se or about my writerly comments. One woman even told me that she already had her education and she didn't want to learn any more about writing or anything else (from me). Obviously, I was in the wrong group. So I left again.

If I do decide to join or form another reading group--and it won't be anytime soon-- I'm almost certain all the members will be writers, that there won't be any food, that the view won't matter, that we'll live in diverse neighborhoods all over the city, that we'll be good listeners and articulate commentators, and that all of us will have a curiosity about good literature--genre or literary, fiction or nonfiction--the society in which it is born, and how it is made.

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