An economist, a lawyer, an interior designer, and a marketing professional walk into a room. No, this isn’t the opening line of a joke. It’s every single book club meeting I have attended over the past year. While it may seem laughable that a few modern day working professionals manage to find the time to read together, let me tell you it has been a small victory for my late 20s.
Last year in May, I found myself restless after stepping down from an English Literature teaching position at a well-known school in the city. Suddenly, I had a lot of spare time on my hands. Reading had always been a passion of mine since childhood, developed at a time when I found myself suddenly transplanted to a new country and culture where the only solace to be found was within the words of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
My own misery paled in comparison to that of the poor protagonist David; suddenly the ten-year-old me didn’t feel so alone anymore — the (perceived) change in my circumstances all accredited to the transportive power of fiction: “New thoughts and hopes were whirling through my mind, and all the colours of my life were changing”.
In the 1630s America, one woman organised a weekly women’s meet where they discussed the sermons delivered in the local church, eventually earning her condemnation in the colony but inadvertently establishing one of the first recorded discussion groups in the world. Throughout history, men and women have set up various forms of book clubs — the goal of which is usually to gather round and analyse a body of work, sharing ideas and interpretations over food and drink.
So, with the help of a friend who had been in a book club before, we gathered a couple of acquaintances and formed our own: the rules were simple, each month, a member got to select a book, whoever chose our book also had to organise our meeting, and the penalty for not reading the selected material was paying for the food at the meeting.
But what I didn’t anticipate was that something that started off as a fun way to push myself to read more turned into a cherished monthly ritual where conversations with other members on books I would have seldom selected myself challenged my way of thinking and developed broader interests.
As Elena Ferrante noted in our very first book club pick, My Brilliant Friend, “She was trying to understand, we were both trying to understand, and understanding was something that we loved to do.” In so many ways, my fellow club members and I were encountering the same kind of exploration that Lila and Elena were experiencing: through books we found ways to understand the world around us and the many characters that inhabit it.
Reading My Brilliant Friend helped me accept that some friendships may be tense and antagonistic by nature, but still have value: where I saw Elena as submissive, others in the club viewed her as prudent and patient; where Lila seemed hostile and selfish, others pointed out her sensitivity and adventurous spirit.
Though the first few months of our quaint little book club went by swimmingly, sure enough we hit a small bump in the road when we found ourselves reading Me Before You by Jojo Meyes: most of us could not finish the romantic novel because of its sappy plot about a young caretaker who falls for her patient, a paralysed man, but we found ourselves caught in a riveting moral argument about assisted suicide for the terminally ill and paraplegics.
Soon after, another roadblock appeared for me when a member selected Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari — a scary, thick, science heavy, non-fiction book that screamed ‘not interesting’ to me. But we all agreed and what seemed to be an avoid-at-all-costs type read turned out to be the most fascinating read of all. Harari turned out to be a fascinating historian and storyteller, using disciplines such as biology and anthropology to flesh out a relatable evolution of man.
Perhaps what attracted us all to the book ultimately was the sensationalism and fervour Harari utilised when he discussed his subject — and during that particular meeting I recall being lost in the ancient plains of Asia as the Neanderthals and Sapiens battled for dominance, much like in your favourite Game of Thrones episode.
For days I could not stop thinking or talking about Sapiens, where previously I could only see human suffering, suddenly the world seemed like an ant colony. Evolution and survival was the lens Harari coloured my perspective with and going over the book with my club was almost like a seminar on the topic. We all emerged feeling inspired and invigorated.
We read many books: more than any of us had managed in the last couple of years! Knowing there was someone waiting at the end of the novel to discuss it with spurred us on, to the point where sometimes we would find ourselves competing on our WhatsApp group for whom could finish fastest. It felt good to have something to do besides staring at the phone in our free time; we were escaping reality, but not through the usual 21st century means.
Reading Dune by Frank Herbert was another first: being a student of classical literature, I had never seriously considered Science Fiction novels. But following young Paul Atreides through the sandy deserts of Arrakis, we marvelled at the completeness of the vast universe built by Herbert and parallels that could be drawn between the protagonist and ancient Arabia.
What is truly wonderful about reading as a group is that you seldom leave any stone unturned when discussing the appointed material. At the one-year anniversary mark of our precious little book club, we are all bonded in a way few get to do in adult life.
With the conveniences provided by modern day technology, the tradition of book clubs is still alive and kicking in today’s modern world. For those seeking a way to connect with others beyond small talk and social media, this is the perfect platform for a bit of fun and a lot of personal growth.