I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.
–Groucho Marx

I am not good at book clubs. It has taken me several years – and several book clubs – to realize that I’m not great at reading a book because someone else told me to and then to have fun discussing it (or not discussing it, and just drinking wine instead). The whole thing feels a little bit like school, like an assignment, and when I was in school I always had trouble participating in large group discussions (introvert alert!).

Maybe the difficulty also lies in not being comfortable with open-ended conversations (see: introvert), but maybe it’s also because I have a degree in writing, and people tend to think I have higher standards about grammar. I do have high standards for books, but mostly that translates to wanting to read books I think are worth reading and then spending time considering how that book expands my mind, my outlook, my experience in the world.

In fact, I haven’t been in that many book clubs in my life, and I honestly enjoy the two I’m in now. But “enjoying” doesn’t really mean the same thing to me as “being good at,” even if the stakes of these particular clubs are really low. And maybe that’s part of the problem, too: as a humanities student who spent many, many years in discussion-based classes that I found challenging in good and bad ways, I equate being able to talk about a book with being able to understand it; being able to interrogate all the nuances of a book with liking or not liking a book, its argument, its premise.

I’m in two book clubs right now – one with some of the women in my extended family and one with a good friend from college. The first is really more of a way for us all to stay in touch now that we’re comfortable with Zoom; the second is a way for us to discover new authors and ideas and revisit old ones to see how they sit now. In their own ways, these two book clubs are teaching me about patience, perseverance, curiosity, and joy. They are helping me read at a time in my life when reading is often the last priority in the week, when I’m lucky if I read 15 minutes before turning off the light at night. And they are allowing me to learn more about myself and the people with whom I’m reading – even when we don’t spend a lot of time talking about the book itself. I appreciate the sense of accountability to people I care about, and the opportunity to try new things based on the suggestions of people I trust. I’m learning not to take too personally the opinions of people who hate the books I suggest – our responses to books are very subjective, informed by our backgrounds, exposure to other writers and cultures, and the reasons why we read in the first place.

People who are good at book clubs might say that the books aren’t really the point at all. The point is to make connections, and to strengthen them again and again over time. As I learn to let go of my own preconceived notions and embrace the unexpected gifts of conversations, I am getting better at embracing and understanding myself and the books – and people – that have made me who I am.

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