Membership Has Its Privileges

Why I’ve come around to the idea of joining a book group.





I swore I’d never be in a book group. Don’t get me wrong: I love these groups’ invitations to attend and discuss one of my books. I always have a great time and come away having learned something new about my characters. The book reads the reader, as the saying goes, and the group reads the author.

But, until recently, I’d never joined one myself. I love free-range reading whatever I want. Also, I almost always have an “assigned” book going, too (and while reading a book for review is often a pleasure, it’s also a demanding engagement). So, I’ve balked at the notion of assigned reading on deadline for a group.

Never say never.

One of my first responses to the pandemic was to start a Zoom reading group with my 10-year-old grandniece. (We’re on Misty of Chincoteague now.) Also, in those early weeks, I found a Twitter invitation I couldn’t refuse: A Public Space was offering an online book group reading War and Peace.

I have plenty of holes in my life-list of books to read, and this was one. My friend loaned me her copy (tossed it in my car window, actually, as I paused in her driveway, both of us masked and wary), and I joined #TolstoyTogether along with thousands of others from around the world. Our moderator, author Yiyun Li, posted the daily assignment — not more than a dozen pages — as well as her own reflections on that day’s portion.

Each day, I looked forward to the reading, Yiyun’s observations, and posts from fellow readers. #TolstoyTogether became a unique experience of community — reading with invisible strangers in connected solitude. For three months, I lived in the world of Tolstoy’s story and a world of other readers. (In May, A Public Space will publish the anthology Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li).

#TolstoyTogether carried me through the first months of shutdown. Over the next months, I joined successive A Public Space groups and discovered The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, True Grit by Charles Portis, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Green Water, Green Sky by Mavis Gallant, and The City and the House by Natalia Ginzburg, and rediscovered Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wislawa Szmborska. The formula of daily reading and discussion succeeded every time, though each book and moderator offered a different experience.

I discovered the power of reading together and reading incrementally. This gateway book-group experience hooked me. Here’s my huge shout-out of gratitude to A Public Space for what #TolstoyTogether gave me, and for what it led me to next (albeit closer to home).

One of my favorite features of the small apartment building where I live is its communal laundry-room bookshelf. It’s a resting place for titles residents no longer have personal-shelf space for and, for me, galleys I’ve since reviewed. (If I review a book and cannot part with it afterward, another book in my apartment library has to go to the laundry room. It’s the same with shoes and small closets: One pair in, another pair out.)

The laundry room is where I ran into Barbara, a retired English teacher (the sort of wonderful teacher who never really retires). I told her about my experience reading War and Peace online. Both passionate readers, we continued to chat outdoors, masked and distant. By the time our conversation ended, we’d decided to adapt the incremental, online reading group model for our building.

She and I have strong opinions about books and agreed we’d choose something we wanted to revisit or had never read before. Our brainstorming skewed toward the classics; outstanding contemporary books come out all the time, but we had a selfish bucket-list motive. Rather than following the format of daily pages-to-be-read and tweets, our schedule would be about a hundred pages every two weeks, followed by a Zoom meeting.

First up was Middlemarch. I had not read the novel in 40 years and wondered what it would be like a lifetime later. An invitation to the whole building was issued, explaining our game plan. Any edition was fine, the objective being to get the book in hand ASAP. Our local library offers curbside pickup, the neighborhood bookstore special-orders, and used-book options abound online. RSVPs came in, and the Zoom link went out for the inaugural meeting of our hardy band of pioneers.

Middlemarch wears very, very well. Re-experiencing the book in a group of seasoned readers — our combined age equals a few centuries — was resonant. George Eliot wrote the novel in eight installments; it adapted perfectly to the incremental reading plan and every-other-week discussion sessions over two months.

Bonus beyond bonus: We were with neighbors again but encountering each other in a new way from Before Times conversations in the laundry room or at the mailboxes. We were meeting not just the community of Middlemarch but coming to know our own in a deeper way.

The book does, indeed, read the reader. We spoke up from our little squares on the screen with sometimes surprising observations and responses. Two months and 800 pages later, we weren’t ready to say goodbye to each other. We’ve since read two more books, and another is in the pipeline. With every new book, the invitation goes out to the whole building. Some new readers join, and some former readers leave, as interest and time dictate.

Following Middlemarch, we took on The Sound and the Fury (or, rather, it took us on). One of our residents is a professor of American literature; he played the Yiyun Li moderator role. After Faulkner, Barbara and I were looking for something lighter, so we chose Iris Murdoch’s debut novel, Under the Net.

Ironically, it proved the most difficult read so far to engage with — something about the author and her protagonist’s arch, slippery voice, perhaps. But the greater degree of difficulty rewarded the completers with an intense, culminating conversation as much about our experience of reading together as about what we’d read.

There’s an alchemy about reading on the installment plan, coming together (even virtually) to discuss the current book in progress. Yes, it really is all about the journey. Next up? James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. I can’t wait.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s new collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song will be published May 25, 2021. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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