“Is reading antisocial?” Laura Miller asked last week on Salon. Her topic was the dearth of reading apps with a useful social component; an app she’d intended to use to read and virtually discuss a book with a friend had been shut down before she managed to begin her social reading. All readers, however, can feel the deeper resonance of her question.
Reading is, by nature, a solitary activity. But it’s also an activity we value discussing afterward, whether it’s cocktail party chatter about the latest Ann Patchett or a book club discussion of Anna Karenina. We want reading to be social, perhaps because it’s hard for such a social race to fathom going through the profound emotional and intellectual experience of savoring a book without finding another human who has shared that experience.
This urge to make the private act of reading convivial likely drives the perennial popularity of the book club -- though, as Nathan Heller speculated in 2011, it might just be the copious snacks and wine on offer at meetings. Who would turn down Pinot and crumb cake? On the other hand, the essentially antisocial nature of reading (it’s something we do alone, after all) may be driving the failure of book clubs, at least the book clubs I've joined. That’s right, I hold a BA in English literature, have three bookshelves in my apartment, and have failed at every attempt I’ve made to be in a book club.
Of course, if reading really is antisocial, it's unsurprising that a social club centered on that activity would be difficult to sustain. My own childhood was a textbook example of the unsociable nature of reading. Like many bookworms, I had friends but often preferred to read. My father would chide me for being a wallflower as I sat on the stoop reading some middle-grade novel while he and my brothers played Knockout on the backyard basketball hoop, and my teachers would reprimand me for dangerously speeding down the hall to the cafeteria while trying to finish a chapter of my book. Though I shared recommended titles with friends and dutifully participated in class discussions about Johnny Tremaine, the real reading happened in isolation.
As I moved forward with my education, however, something wonderful happened. English class became a place not of worksheets and rote memorization of character names, but of real conversation. By the time I reached college, each seminar seemed like a lunch date with friends. We’d crack open Paradise Lost, Beowulf or Beloved and chat about symbolism, meter, diction, and subtle themes. Sure, sometimes I’d balk at certain assigned texts or groan at the thought of talking about allegory in The Faerie Queene, but even the seminars I least anticipated contained gripping discussion and brought me to new insights about the texts. Reading, which had contributed to my hermit-like social life as a youth, was looking more and more like the basis for a vibrant community.
And then, alas, I graduated. My sheltered, charmed life as a college student was over, and I was spat out into the cruel world. The social aspect of my reading practice vanished so suddenly the backdraft almost knocked me over. Though I’d admired my teachers, I hadn’t accounted for how vital their guidance was to our class discussions, or how odd it would feel to sit down with my old English major friends to have a chat about a book that wasn’t built around a professor-issued framework. Plus, how often did we all read the same book now that our teachers weren’t there to decide that we were all going to read Mrs. Dalloway and be ready to discuss the dominant themes by next Thursday? When a friend and former classmate gave me Swann’s Way, explaining that he wanted to discuss it with someone, I gave up on Proust’s slow-moving descriptive prose within 50 pages. The discussion, obviously, never happened.
Now, I read alone again, and my conversations about what I read are brief and superficial. To those of us who love reading and don’t hate other people, this is frustrating. We want reading to be social. We want to bring our hobby and our friends to the same place and make them hang out together. This is why, periodically, a group of pals and I will say, “Hey, we should start a book club.” None of these book clubs are extant today, except maybe for the ones I failed at so quickly that the clubs sailed ahead without me. These are the book clubs I tipsily expressed fervent interest in at a friend’s house party, only to hear that they were starting out with Roland Barthes, decide I wasn’t in the mood for theory, and quietly avoid going to the first meeting... or any subsequent meetings.
Other times, I've tried harder. Several of my work friends and I, all nostalgic for the literary debates of our college years, put together a book club last year, certain that we would have a successful, non-baked-good-reliant club. We dithered over book selection for days, and finally I insisted on Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. We read the book (or most of it), and we met at a quiet bar near the office. It was, despite the relative hush of the bar, too bustling for in-depth discussion. None of us had taken it upon ourselves to prepare talking points to discuss, and the conversation was unfocused and kept running into intractable disagreements. We needed a leader. We soldiered on and had several more meetings; at each meeting we’d managed to read less, collectively, of the book under discussion, and we gave up on the literary analysis more quickly in favor of chatting about work and life. The club died when we all read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and had no particular desire to discuss it with each other. We never met again.
More recently, another group of coworkers decided to give things a go. It was a larger group; we used a spreadsheet and point-based voting to decide on our first book. Some of us read it. Despite the voting system, several of us simply didn’t want to read the book selected, and didn’t. Time passed. The day of the first meeting rolled around. One by one, nearly everyone in the club begged off, and the meeting was postponed. Another week passed. Once again, the excuses began; some of us hadn’t finished (or started) the book, some of us were busy, some of us weren’t in the mood. Finally, we had to admit that the club was over before it started. It was sad to admit failure, but also a relief. Another book club bites the dust.
Why have all of my book clubs failed? Part of it has to do with me, but ultimately my comrades were very much the same. We were all busy -- not too busy to read or attend a meeting, but busy enough that we cherished our reading time and often put off the book club selection if it wasn’t at the top of our personal reading list. We all liked the idea of a book club but in practice found the deadline an unnecessary extra stressor in our lives. We all wanted to read our own selections rather than compromising on a book we’d have otherwise happily never read. And many of us former humanities students simply wanted book clubs to be a throwback to our halcyon college years, a couple hours of deconstructing metaphors in literary fiction in the company of other readers. We didn’t realize how much we had depended on a professor, a lecture informing our discussion, a due date, or a grade.
I’m a book club failure -- so far, at least -- and that means reading is, for me, antisocial. Given the great strain it clearly takes to make reading a group activity, I suspect that it is indeed inherently isolating. Yet when we do overcome it, an insightful conversation can enrich our reading experience. I've concluded that all we need to get there is a strong-willed, well-trained discussion leader, someone who can make damn sure we read the whole book, get the conversation started, prompt us to put real thought into our comments on the text, and encourage each clubber to contribute fully to the dialogue. In short, someone standing over us with a metaphorical bullhorn, excoriating us to reach for greater analytical heights. Lacking such an expert moderator, none of my book clubs have touched the greatness of my least inspiring English class.
Maybe there are book clubs out there that function smoothly while also fostering lively, penetrating debates about literature. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes: the book club gene. Maybe I’m missing the secret sauce of a great book club-goer. But deep down, I suspect that what’s missing is a good teacher. And coffee cake. My next book club will definitely have coffee cake.