Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Book discussion group? Please start (and finish) without me

I'm usually careful not to write anything too personal in this blog. You'll never know, for instance, exactly where I live or what church I belong to or whether I vote correctly (define that as you like). But this morning I'm going to break my rule and share something deeply personal.

I don't like talking about books.

No, let me rephrase that. I don't like talking about specific books in excruciating detail with a room full of animated coffee-swillers or wine-sippers who have all just read the same thing.

That's right, I don't like book discussion groups.

It's the fault of Miss Clements, a woman who seemed nice, but who came perilously close to turning me into a Stepford Reader when I was a (relatively) defenseless 15-year-old. That year Miss Clements forced me and the rest of her English class to nitpick the very "important" Lord of the Flies line by tedious line, searching for symbolism and making up our own when we didn't find enough to please her.

I hated that book. I hated that class. I hated--

Sorry, Miss Clements. I'm sure you were doing your best.

I'm not judging anyone who participates in book discussion groups. I'm just saying I'd rather have eye surgery (and I've had eye surgery, so I know what I'm saying) than join a book group. Thanks for asking, but I'm busy that night.

This morning I came across this essay by a kindred spirit:

This instinctive aversion to the notion of book clubs
springs from a deep-rooted belief in the essence of the
experience of reading. (Does the phrase “solitary
pleasure” ring any pleasant associative bells?) Reading
is the greatest of great escapes. Reading is permission
to simply be, to exist in another world, the world of the
book. But you can’t maintain that Zen state when
someone is wittering away about plot, tone and setting
as though they are the new holy trinity.

Ab. So. Lutely.

I don't even like to pick apart my own stories to see what makes them work (or not). So when a group of romance writers gets together to talk about Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (talk about your holy trinities!) my eyes glaze over. To me, it's all about instinct and magic. I don't want to see behind the curtain. You go ahead and look if you want, but please don't spoil it for me.

...I read the words of Sue Zimmerman, 50, in an article about book clubs published recently by California’s Ventura County Star.

“Sometimes you need to be in a book club because you’re reading and reading and you just don’t get it,” said Zimmerman. “That’s what clubs do. They help you get it.”

If I met Sue Zimmerman, 50, I’d suggest otherwise. Because maybe if you “just don’t get it,” you’re not necessarily meant to. Or maybe you should just read another book, one that you do “get,” one that you actually want to read.

Amen to that. I don't want to work that hard to understand a book. If I don't know what the author is trying to say, either she has failed to do her job or I'm not just a very smart cookie. It doesn't matter which; I just pick up my coat and move on.


Heather Diane Tipton said...

Thank you Brenda! I thought I was the only one!

Valerie Comer said...

For me it was Mr. Knight..............sorry, my eyes glazed over there for a moment. I always had trouble believing in the fifteen layers of meaning myself. Maybe that was just Charles Dickens' STYLE -- didja ever think of THAT Mr.Knight?


Brenda Coulter said...

Valerie, sweetheart, maybe we should be charitable and acknowledge that our teachers were horribly abused when they were in school. ;-)

Seriously, I'd like to hear from someone who truly enjoys picking books apart. I know you're out there. Were you born with some gene that the rest of us weren't?

Janet Hoover said...

I always believed that God allowed writers to write books for enjoyment. Picking them apart destroys that wonderful purpose.
(P.S. for me it was Mrs. Zurinski and "Great Expectations")

J. Mark Bertrand said...

Since you said you wanted to hear from someone who does enjoy "pulling books apart," here I am. Nothing is worse than a bad book discussion, and a group that includes high school students (and teachers) is just about guaranteed to be bad. Plenty of people who have had negative experiences, myself included, come away highly skeptical of the whole thing.

But here's something I learned long after high school. Book discussions are like dinner parties -- whether or not they succeed depends a lot on who you invite. What you choose to read makes a difference, too.

Reading and talking about books aren't the same thing. Yes, reading is a solitary pleasure. But book talk -- with the right talkers -- is a communal pleasure. I mean, what ELSE are you going to talk about? :)

Katie Hart said...

I occasionally pick books apart, but if it's a good book I hate it. It almost feels like a desecration. I just hope to apply some of what I've learned to my own writing. With reviewing, I have to analyze more than I'd like. For my favorites, I give the best plot/character summary teaser I can, then creatively state that the plot, characters, setting, pace, etc. are all wonderful.

booksquare said...

Hi! Loves to pick apart books and darn proud of it.

I have a bit of a reputation in my bookclub (which began before it was cool). They relish the nights when we discuss a book I didn't like (anyone who want to hear my thoughts on Fall On Your Knees, please let me know [g]). It probably won't surprise Brenda, but I'm also the person designated Most Likely To Slog Through The Monthly Selection. This is because I (apparently) had a rare good experience in high school English. And, Robinson Crusoe excepted, I really like to read a book and see what works and doesn't work -- even when I don't enjoy the book.

Emotional problems? Yes. Why do you ask?

Susan Kaye said...

I enjoy digging into a book and dissecting it. Also, I write Fan Fiction--yeah, yeah, get some originality--and so picking apart not only characterization but chronology is an occupational hazard.

I certainly could have used some group think yesterday when I watched Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." GAH!! I did get a couple of good ten-minute naps in.

Brenda Coulter said...

J. Mark, you may be onto something with that dinner party analogy. And I know from reading Booksquare's blog that the food and beverages served at her group's meetings are at least as thoughtfully chosen (and thoroughly discussed) as the monthly book selections, and that intrigues me.

So maybe if the choice was between eye surgery and accompanying one of you to your meeting...

I'd hesitate for a moment or two before I gracefully declined your invitation and submited to the guys with the lasers.

Brenda Coulter said...

Hey, Susan -- please don't apologize for writing fan fiction. ;-) As a romance writer, I'm not likely to diss someone else's genre. The way I figure it, if we hacks don't respect one another, we won't get any respect.

tristan coulter said...

I resent the earlier statement "...and a group that includes high school students (and teachers) is just about guaranteed to be bad." Many of the book discussions I participated in during high school were extremely intelligent, insightful, and respectful. Maybe it had something to do with the school I went to, but it’s easy for me to say that the majority of book discussions I was in throughout high school were at least on par, and many times surpassing, the intelligence level of conversations I've had with adults. To single out younger readers is a cheap shot. While there certainly are some bad discussions, I would never go so far as to say that discussions by groups of high school students are “just about guaranteed to be bad”.

Switching gears, I am very selective of with whom I am willing to discuss a book. In my experiences, the only bad book discussions have been with folks who have no respect of other people’s opinions. Lately I’ve been reading some highly controversial books (know thy enemy) and there are few people I’m willing to discuss them with. Many people are stubborn and unwilling to even attempt to understand opposing viewpoints, and I see little point in engaging them in discussion. What’s the point? After all, a discussion is supposed to be an earnest conversation – not an opportunity to assert one’s moral superiority.

Brenda Coulter said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brenda Coulter said...

Tristan, you are extraordinary kid and we sent you to an extraordinary high school, so I can see how you would take exception to J. Mark's generalization that book discussions in high school English classes are awful. But you appear to assume J. Mark meant they were awful merely because of the age of the participants, and I don't think he was saying that.

The discussions are often less than satisfying because many of the kids don't want to be there to begin with. Some haven't even read the book, and the ones who have don't always enjoy talking about it. On top of that, sometimes the teachers don't want to be there. Contrast that to a book club setting, where everybody is eager to participate. The difference is not one of maturity, but of taste.

booksquare said...

Sigh, the eye surgery is a snap. I did it and didn't even have enough downtime to whine (this despite the fact that they forgot to give me my Valium...). What a gyp! My mom had cataract surgery and spent days making elaborate plans for post-op...boy was she disappointed when she walked out seeing!

But the next time you're in Pasadena, you can come to my bookclub. And yes, food and drink are important. We try desperately to match the theme of the book, but after one too many Russian novels, do allow some flexibility (also, the English food didn't hurt this decision). I really do like discussing the books with my friends because everyone gets something different from the story -- I read as a writer far too often and sometimes miss the forest for the trees, so to speak. It's always fascinating to me what others take away from a story.

J. Mark Bertrand said...

Sorry, Tristan, if I gave offense. I don't have anything against high school students as a class of people. I spend my summers with them (much of the time discussing books) and enjoy every minute of it. What I had in mind was the sort of mind-numbing high school discussion experience that was my lot back in the day -- one that many people can identify with: "What are the five major themes of [insert title here]?" Hint: for my teacher, 'fatalism' was always in the top five, no matter what the book was about.

Our book group happens to be blessed with a member who studied culinary arts in Paris and now makes cakes for a living. When we did MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN, she brought a cake shaped like an Indian palace. Things were going great until she showed up to the discussion of Naipaul's A BEND IN THE RIVER with betel nuts for us to suck on, like they do in the book. Given that choice to make again, I would endure eye surgery with a null scalpel.

Anonymous said...

two things:

1. I also had Miss Clements for English. (yes, Brenda and I went to the same high school...and that makes me "the sister") and I also have some of the same feelings about disecting a work. Mostly because I detest being told what to do, but also because it tends to zap the pleasure of just reading.

2. You must all understand, that Tristan was definietly NOT your average high school kid. I mean that in all sincerity...even as a child, he could hold his own in a discussion with just about any adult.