When I graduated college with a degree in English Literature, I told myself that I was done analyzing fiction for the rest of my life. As much as I’d enjoyed my studies, I felt that, ultimately, it was a bunch of theoretical blathering. Who were we, a group of barely-not-children, to decide what an author’s work meant or symbolized? I was drawn to studying literature because it was a field with no wrong answers (and a minimal math requirement), but when I got through with it, I felt that interpretation wasn’t close enough to knowledge. In other words, I knew I was clearly not cut out for grad school.
I kept reading, of course; novels from the trade paperback shelves and various memoirs, mostly. My ban on analysis, however, held tight. (Much like my college-borne ban on completing a work of original fiction.) I discovered amazing new authors like Michael Chabon and Lee Smith, added new titles to my list of all-time favorites, but never did I discuss anything but the most technical details of what I’d read. I couldn’t even bring myself to write reviews on Goodreads.com.
And yet, when Kristy and I were recently invited into two different book clubs within the span of a week (as RJA writes about today), I readily said yes to both. I’m always happy to have an excuse to read, of course, and the promise of a night out of the house sweetened the deal. But I really had no idea if I would have anything to say, or a desire to say anything, about our required reading.
Imagine my surprise when the first book club night arrived and I in fact had a hard time shutting up. It was like a dormant geyser of deconstructionism burst from my head. Not usually the most talkative in any crowd, I think I stunned the groupers who knew me well, and probably made a blustery impression on those who didn’t. I, of course, blamed the wine.
I assumed I’d be more constrained at the next meeting, which, other than Kristy, consisted of neighborhood women I didn’t know at all. Also, I had a Sprite. And yet, when we got into discussion about the book (Kathryn Stockett’s The Help), I couldn’t stop myself. I was drawing connections, discussing motivations, and occasionally disputing the author’s decision to write the book at all. But I will happily say, it wasn’t all about me. The conversation was lively and smart, and I was struck by the sheer pleasure of being among peers and talking for two hours about something other than our jobs or kids. Even if it meant talking about make-believe people’s jobs and kids.
Thinking critically about novels again has made me reflect on my education and the teachers and professors who taught me how to truly read. Their names still stick with me – Professors Appel, Waid, Payne, Epstein, Eprile, and my dear Ms. Jewell – and I think of them collectively as my original book club. I appreciate them even more now than I did while furiously copying their wisdom into my class notes. I wish I could invite them all over to the house to share what they’re reading these days. And, of course, a nice glass of wine.