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Life Anchoring Life: How and Why to Start a Book Club

How to keep yourself reading great books.

Where does literature fit in a well-ordered life?

That’s a question I try to get my students to ask on the last day of “Civilization and Literature,” a core humanities course I teach at Grove City College. A small percentage of these young men and women will never teach a literary text. The lion’s share never blink at the prospect of a PhD in English. (And thank heaven, since someone needs to keep the world running.) What part will the classics play in their lives five years from now, ten years from now, twenty?

Reading belongs to leisure—the dusky porch hours hemmed in by rhododendrons, the reverie of the winter hearth and frost’s “secret ministry.” Sundown pairs best with the novel, the fable, the sonnet. In the Greek poet Sappho’s words, evening is the shepherd “that brings back all that bright morning scattered,” and with a good book, we re-collect ourselves through story and verse.

Yet most of us admit the difficulty of maintaining this life of books. Our calendars brim with appointments; the week evaporates like water in a hot pan. Even teachers struggle to make time for extracurricular reading. That’s why, with the hurley burley of life ahead, I give my students this parting advice at the close of the semester: Start a book club.

Solitary reading has its special joys, no doubt, but another good way to continue reading in college and after college, another good way to live a life with the classics, is to form a cohort of the cheerfully committed. Vladimir Nabokov somewhere called the book club a “deadly conventionality,” and perhaps social starchiness is a danger here. My own experience, however, has redeemed the idea of the book club from the image of a parlor-room purgatory. A reading group will grow starchy if its members use books to iron out the pleats of their social image, but if a humble group of friends approaches Dante for Dante’s sake, Dickens for Dickens’ sake, Faulkner for Faulkner’s sake, there is no stopping those disciples. They have obtained park passes to the trail of wisdom.

It is easy to turn good things into dry duties. In his memorable way, Alan Jacobs warns us against this habit in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011):

For heaven’s sake, don’t turn reading into the intellectual equivalent of eating organic greens, or (shifting the metaphor slightly) some fearfully disciplined appointment with an elliptical trainer of the mind in which you count words or pages the way some people fix their attention on the “calories burned” readout—some assiduous and taxing exercise that allows you to look back on your conquest of Middlemarch with grim satisfaction. How depressing. This kind of thing is not reading at all, but what C.S. Lewis once called “social and ethical hygiene.”

Some readers read little; other readers read much, but their reading has all the delectable flavor of a veggie-shake. Rightly conceived, a book club both inspires us to read and cures us of those “assiduous” and “taxing” motives which impoverish the reading experience. Put succinctly, great literature is more deeply enjoyed in the context of friendship, and we read more faithfully when we read with companions.

How does one start a book club? Here are my six recommendations:

  1. REALIZE THE GOAL. The only thing that holds a book club together with any kind of tolerable coherence is the possibility of equals learning from and delighting in literature together. Pretense and pontification are off-limits; likewise, the-journey-is-the-destination-style discussion. Books are communal treasures, and only an army of peers can storm the cave, kill the serpent of spiritual sleepiness, and unearth the gold.
  2. FIND SOME FRIENDS. Friends, we must emphasize. Not scholars, not stooges. Read with your closest companions, with people who like books. Yet we emphasize the “some” in “some friends.” The group must be small. Four to five members is ideal.
  3. CHOOSE GREAT BOOKS. If your leisure-reading is a form of liberal learning, then find the best specimens of literature. Consult established reading lists, like Mortimer Adler’s catalogue of great books. Refer to the seminar schedules of great books colleges like New Saint Andrew’s College in Moscow, Idaho, and St. John’s College in Annapolis and Santa Fe. The relieving word for us to embrace is the notion that the classics are themselves the organized body of learning. If the tradition says that Frankenstein is worth reading, you should probably read Frankenstein. If the ages affirm Beowulf, then get your hands on some Beowulf. Here I appreciate James Schall’s counsel from Another Sort of Learning (1988). Schall is worth quoting at length:

We wonder, is it everything in just any order that is the point of learning, or is there some order to learning? Are there some things that are more important to know than others? Is there, as Scripture says, “one thing” that is necessary for us to know? And if some things more important than others, how do we go about deciding which things are more worthy of knowledge? The order of knowledge and the order of experience are not necessarily the same. Nevertheless, if we are fundamentally realists, that is, people who believe that there is a reality found outside the mind and not merely one imposed on a kind of chaos out there by this same mind according to our own wishes or desires, we must expect that learning can take place in any time, place, or situation. This is really something very wondrous, since it suggests that no thing is cut off from everything. We always have a direct contact with what is.

On the other hand, there is no need to reinvent the wheel just because we did not invent it ourselves. That is, it is perfectly all right to learn something from others, from books. We cannot doubt that what is to be known is practically infinite, so that beginning from where someone else left off is in no way a denial of reality itself. We ought not to be overly surprised, then, if someone who lived two centuries before us, or ten, or twenty-five, can still teach us much. This means that the effort to know includes the effort to know from others: hence, the value of learning both how and what to read.

In other words, knowledge can be found everywhere, but the worthiness of certain works and subjects will come to us through the tradition. Needless to say, old books will be our best companions, and for that reason, we might adhere to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice: “Never read any book that is not a year old.”

4. MAKE A SCHEDULE. Meet regularly, but not so regularly that the club feels slavish. For some people, once-a-month gatherings provide a manageable schedule. It may be a good idea to rotate hosts and let each host choose the text for that meeting.

5. PAIR WITH GOOD FOOD AND GOOD DRINK. You’ve fed the soul with a classic; now feed the body with steak and a cab, a pork loin and some Riesling, gourmet burgers and a double-IPA. Push the budget slightly. Buy extravagant cheeses. Learn how to bake. Soon you will discover that the sustenance of body helps you savor the sustenance of the spirit.

6. DISCUSS THE TEXT. Here are four powerful questions for discussing a great book:

  1. What happens?
  2. What are we supposed to think about it?
  3. What idea or ideal is assumed here?
  4. Where else do we find that idea(l) in the world of the text (or in the text of the world)?

At present, I am convinced that these four questions are almost inexhaustible. Linger with them in conversation; see what they yield. Depth, not breadth, is the goal at any book club gathering, and John Milton’s admonition is ever before us:

Who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and judgment equal or superior,
(And what he brings what needs he elsewhere seek?)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep-versed in books and shallow in himself.
(Paradise Regained, 4.322-327)

We shouldn’t underestimate the power that is literary play. Leisure seems like excess, and we will admit that it is. But this excess is a surplus of life anchoring life, a gratuity which grounds. Leisure is the leaves and volutes of a Corinthian pillar holding up the soul’s temple, and without that precious post, the edifice sags. Some of the most important things we do belong to the realm of festivity, conviviality, and joy.

Affirming the high value of reading goes against the grain of an un-Sabbathed society: “Doesn’t our work life form the essential core of our identities?” the careerist asks. “Doesn’t leisure on the other hand represent our accidental interests: sports, games, cinema—different strokes for different folks?” Hardly. Literary leisure helps us recover our shared imago dei identity: souls invested with the gifts of contemplation and joy.

The year stretches before you. So does a shelf of delightful reading. Find some friends, prepare a feast, and remember Samuel Johnson’s word to happy readers: “What is read with delight is commonly retained.”

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