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Fiona Murphy on how the benefits of a book club stretch beyond sharing a wine and a wheel of cheese.
There are two questions that most writers are asked at some point in their career—what is your writing routine? And what advice would you give other writers? Routines can be as varied as they can be exacting—Capote never started a new piece of writing on a Friday, whereas Colette never started work until she had picked her dog free of fleas.
Writing advice, on the other hand, tends to sound strikingly similar: write every day and write what you know. That said, for every writing ‘rule’ there will always be someone suggesting the exact opposite. Write whenever and whatever! There does, however, seem to be one rule that is never broken regardless of how eccentric the writer may be. Stephen King is unflinching in his delivery of it: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or tools, to write. Simple as that.”
But is it that simple?
I thought I was a good reader and then I joined a book club.
I have always been an enthusiastic bookworm. Though, it wasn’t until I popped along to my first book club meeting, with a bottle of wine and a wheel of cheese, that I discovered that the way I read deviated wildly from the rest of the group. I did not so much as read the book as be ferried along by my feelings. Despite being enthused about what I was reading, I only retained fragments of it. I talked about it as if recalling a dream. For two hours we slowly picked a part the structure, the themes, the dialogue. The more we talked, the more I discovered about the book. Consequently my thoughts about it slowly morphed from shapeless impressions to robust, well-founded opinions. In anticipation of the next meeting I read with a keener eye. I was able to contribute more to the discussion than just a slightly squashed wheel of brie. I learnt more about myself as a reader having to defend my opinions about Love in a Cold Climate than any high school English class.
Reading is a deeply personal experience, books can illuminate yourself and the world around you in equal measure. Yet for every book that moves you, chances are it will leave others cold. Mark Twain suggested that there are 14 types of readers, ranging from the humourless to the sentimental. He used this as a filter to make his writing as universally appealing as possible. David Foster Wallace took a more personal approach to his craft and prioritised his own tastes—“the way I am as a writer comes very much out of what I want as a reader.” Either way, both Twain and Wallace took that critical step of moving beyond passively reading a book to analysing their experience as a reader.
Before joining a book club I didn’t have the foggiest idea why I would weather a storm of tears whenever I read Michael Ondaatje or Jeanette Winterson. Sure those reading experiences may have weaved their way into my writing but frankly, I was groping in the dark until I became a more active reader. I know now that Alice Munro wrecks me because she wields a pen like a surgeon does a scalpel—each sentence is sharp and incising. Knowing this clarifies what I want to achieve with my writing.
It’s been almost a decade since I attended my first book club meeting. Since then I’ve joined several book clubs. They have ranged from clubs organised by book stores, work colleagues and friends. There have been times I’ve juggled up to four clubs at a time. I agree that this is absurd, though it is also a testament to their addictive nature.
The opportunity to discuss a book at length rarely comes up spontaneously. To dedicate a couple hours a month to discussing books is a wonderful if not surprising experience. It keeps books alive long after you finish reading them, which is an exceedingly useful tool for a writer. Valeria Luiselli poetically sums this up in her collection of essays, Sidewalks: “With the persistence of a mosquitos around a light bulb, I prowl the shelves in search of that book, that page, that underlined phrase I vaguely remember, but which—if I could only reread it—would finally give me the confidence to completely my recently abandoned idea.”
Some of you may resent having others dictate your reading. This is a fair argument. After all even cracking a century seems like a fleeting life when measured against the yardstick of books read. That said, some of best book clubs I’ve attended were about books I absolutely detested. The more divisive a book is the quicker you’ll learn things about yourself and everyone else in the room.
So sure, you can try and contort yourself into every type of reader. You can be disciplined and continuously shift world views to critique the ways Enright or Nabokov employ commas. But that might sap the pleasure from your reading. It is quicker and far more sociable to join a book club.
Banner image: andresmh via Flickr
Fiona Murphy is a poet, essayist and editor based in Melbourne. She co-hosts the book club podcast Literary Canon Ball.
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