Tag Archives: books

Book Club Quandary

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I’ll go ahead and admit that I was focused on the carrot cake and not fully listening to Brenda. She talks often in our book club meetings, so I thought it was safe to tune out a bit and think instead about people who are into cake. Cake discussions invariably address moistness, sweetness, and cake-frosting ratio, and this particular carrot cake was scoring high on all counts. While there were no worries of me running to the Dutch bakery to buy more of it and blow my diet, I certainly was “in the moment” and savoring this generous slice of carbohydrates while Brenda relayed something of interest to the group.

There were 7 of us at the round table, a normal turnout for the monthly meeting of our 10-year old club. If you’ve ever seen the clever cocktail napkins with a drawing of a book and a bottle of wine, you likely have a sense of the ethos of our gatherings: a wine club that reads books. Most of our time is social; we are as likely to spend a couple of hours talking about vacations or grandkids as we are discussing the month’s book of choice. Nobody leads the discussion, there are no pre-arranged questions to keep us on topic, and the selection of next month’s book is as random as deciding on a title that someone stumbled upon recently in a Facebook post.

This club casualness explains why I was suprised when I tuned back in to the topic at hand at our last meeting. I looked up from my glob of cream cheese frosting and realized that Brenda had ventured into a monologue about how reading a book you might not like initially can be a character-building experience. She proclaimed that the whole point of a book club is to open one’s mind to titles which would not normally draw you in. “We learn from what we read,” she continued, “and unexpected worlds are to be found in a book that may not typcially be appealing.”

I shook off my sugar buzz and started paying closer attention to her speech. Without naming names, she seemed frustrated that someone would come to book club meetings and be dismissive of many of the featured works. I looked around the table and suddenly had the thought: she is talking about me!

It’s no secret in the group that I have little interest in many of the books everyone reads and reviews. I am not a huge fan of fiction, and am a snob about non-fiction, which leaves little else to consider. If I get overly stressed in my life, I find that I barely have the attention span for magazine articles, much less full stories. If I start a book and it doesn’t captivate me with wonderment in the first 3 chapters, I thoughtlessly abandon it right into my box of Goodwill donations. I rarely suggest titles at the meetings, and seldom chime in to book-related conversations. I don’t even participate with bringing food very often. In short, I am a sub-par member of the group, and up until now, it seemed to be ok. People still seemed to enjoy seeing me, periodically asking about something I was reading or doing in my life, and I believed that my lack of participation was a non-issue, at least until it occured to me over carrot cake that I might be a dark cloud in the otherwise jovial proceedings.

Suddenly, my philosophy of “life is short, read what you like” was called into question. Sure, I have read some books I would not have otherwise as a result of the club, and I have tossed in a few comments and suggestions here and there, but truly I am the only one in the club outside of my BFF (who rarely attends) with signficant detachment from the task at hand. I love to read as much as anyone else in the group, but I don’t read as often or as many genres as my club cohorts. I am only motivated to read things that inspire or delight or intrigue me. Anything else feels inauthentic, giving me flashbacks to my college years when I suffered through pages which failed to captivate my mind.

If I absolutely HAD to read the book in order to attend the meeting, or thought I would feel uncomfortable if I didn’t, I would have dropped out years ago, finding it all too obligatory and taxing. From the moment I realized that I was the subject of open criticism (I wanted to proclaim, “I’m right here!” as she was speaking), I’ve been contemplating stepping out of the club completely. If I am not adding value, perhaps I don’t need to be there, despite my affection for all of the members, Brenda included.

In the aftermath of this mental debate, I stumbled upon a book in the bookstore and immediately fell in love. This is the kind of immediate, visceral reaction I crave from a book, causing me to feel that all other books are just blind dates gone bad from which I need to escape through a bathroom window. The author of the book, Will Schwalbe, is astonishly articulate, with a keen intelligence and clean style. The topic of the book spoke to my book club quandry, and drew me in with the author’s charm and relatability. Titled Books for Living, it echoes Brenda’s passionate plea that an unexpected book can be life-changing, but it also addresses the dynamic, personal relationship we all have with the works we read. The opening of Schwalbe’s masterpiece engaged me with a description of a dream about not having anything to read on a plane, an intense fear that surpassed any other possible discomfort of the flight, and proceeds to explain books which have impacted his life in some way. I was indescribably happy to have discovered this literary jewel, and found myself walking along downtown streets reading the delicious pages without concern for anything else in the world.

In Books for Living, Schwalbe encourages us to bring books into our daily conversations, asking strangers and family members about what they like to read instead of always leaning on the mundane topics of work or weather. Books are a significant part of our lives, not just a source of knowledge or entertainment, and I know in my heart that this message is what Brenda was trying to convey while I sat feeling judged and confused. We all seek answers to big questions in our lives, and there is no greater source of comfort and insight than the millions of books which have been written by people with similar conundrums.

There is a notable amount of randomness with which we discover books, and a great deal of personalness to the questions we bring to each one. We’ve all found such gems in a casual stroll past a display table at the bookstore, a conversation with a stranger on a plane, or a book club conversation over carrot cake. The trick is to be open to the process and what works for you. I may be a little quicker to the draw on deciding whether or not a book speaks to me, or jump out the bathroom window if it feels like it’s not my thing, but I am as fervent as the next guy about seeking books which might be significant.

I’m not sure yet where I stand on my book club questions (the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” comes to mind), but I’ll ruminate on it. Perhaps I will be so inspired by Books for Living that I will feel compelled to go so that I can share this treasure with my friends. Perhaps I will step up my game and read more uncomfortable genres. Or maybe I’ll take a hiatus for introspection about why I give up so easily. Either way, I’m sure Mr. Schwalbe will have some reliable advice, as important books often do.

 

 

 

The Dinner Guest

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“If you could have dinner with anyone at all, who would it be?” Penny asked Sheldon this question on a recent Big Bang Theory episode. After the show, I pressed Kevin for his answer and he didn’t even blink. “My lovely wife, of course!” Pause. There was a moment of silence. He realized that my brain was racing with options of exciting potential dinner guests spanning all ages, races, and personalities. “I’m guessing that your answer is not dinner with me?”

It’s not that my husband isn’t my most important dining companion, it’s just that I was intrigued by how problematic it would be to glean one person out of countless options. The question was not about how I would spend my last meal, or who is my all-time favorite person. The way I interpreted it, we were summoned to select one individual in order to share some meaningful facetime. At worst, it would make for a cool story, which is something I constantly seek. At best, the experience could be life-changing. Should I dine with someone important or famous or engaging or entertaining? The Dalai Lama, perhaps? The President? Elizabeth Gilbert? David Sedaris? Morgan Freeman? Kathy Griffin? Jim Carrey? Once the query had been posed, I couldn’t get it out of my head, because I couldn’t figure out who my person would be.

A few names bubbled to the surface that I immediately discarded because I could probably make those occasions happen on my own. The fiercely intelligent Nadia Butler, an inspiring local success story, would likely accept my invitation if I had the nerve to call and request some of her time. I would also love to see Ben Holstein, my dear friend from college, but again, I know I could swing it myself if I would just schedule some time to fly to Kansas City. Other names include people with whom I’ve lost touch: my best friend from high school, Donna Lewis, as well as my mentor and former boss during the Clinique years, Katherine Cripps. It was just too difficult to choose.

Waiting to board a plane in the O’Hare airport, I had plenty of time to ponder this conundrum. One thing I did decide is that I disliked the airport, which is much older and less organized than my “home” airport in Atlanta. In Chicago, the ceilings are much lower, making an already claustrophobic environment even more oppressive. I moved from gate to gate, trying to find a less conjested space. I distracted myself with a Chicago hotdog, then a slice of pizza, and finally some local flavored popcorn called “Chicago mix”. Schlepping down the corridor, burdened with my luggage and food, I stopped frozen in my tracks when I saw the title of a book for sale in the sundries store: “The Opposite of Loneliness”. I immediatly thought it was the best book title ever; I purchased it on the spot.

Back at my dingy blue gate, I started reading what I learned was a collection of essays and short stories by Marina Keegan, a writer of astonishing talent. The introduction, written by her former writing professor Anne Fadiman, brought me to tears. Apparently Ms. Keegan had penned the “Opposite of Loneliness” essay shortly before she perished in a violent car crash. She died just five days after she graduated from Yale. The piece went viral, as people everywhere related to her poignant plea to live fully and embrace the beautiful uncertainty of youth. The essay was lyrically engaging, and was ultimately combined with other pieces she wrote, including short stories, and published into a book. Had I not traveled to Chicago, I may not have discovered it.

Delta agents called for pre-boarding, and because I had splurged on an upgraded ticket, I was soon settled into my comfy seat in the first row and began to watch the flight attendants bustle about. I would watch a bit, munch a bit, read a bit. The two-hour flight zipped by as if it were no more significant than preview time at the movies. The attendants visited our section often to offer amenities. While my fellow passengers were liberally partaking of the free flow of alcohol, I sat there engrossed in my own world.

It occurred to me, in that moment, that Ms. Keegan would have made an excellent choice for a dinner companion. Her voice was in my head now, and to be able to hear that voice in person would have been, I have no doubt, a transformative experience. The authenticity of her writing and the immensity of her thinking was exactly the kind of inspiration I was pining for. The point of hypothetical conversations, in the end, is to force us to consider what are the most true aspects of our lives. I was essentially having dinner with my person of choice. I was contemplating her extraordinary vision and felt inspired to live more fully in a way a writer hasn’t challenged me to do since I studied Rilke in college:

Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe;
perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.

Like Ms. Keegan, Rilke challenged us that life is more than the mundane details which consume us; it is something more lovely and engimatic. As Ms. Keegan’s friend Luke Vargas explains in this tribute video: “She led with what what was most personal and I think the places she went in her writing will give other people hope that they can find something at the end of their journey also.” The life we live every day is not life. We must strive to have an impact on the world, and we do that by pursuing what is honest and essential. This eloquent message was presented most poetically from a once-in-a-lifetime dinner companion, and I’m grateful for it.

http://videos.simonandschuster.com/Marina-Keegan-and-THE-OPPOSITE-OF-LONELINESS/3427054710001