Every day there’s a new article about how a degree in the fine arts will get you an overabundance of student debt and that’s it; there’s nothing lucrative about literature. I don’t think solvency was the motivation or even any remote consideration when I entered college as a non-traditional student (read: older than everyone else in the class at 22 years old). There were a combination of arguments:
- If I was going to be broke anyway, why not study something that I loved?
- My manager at the time was a little stunned that I loved books as much as I did and wasn’t in college;
- Once the general education classes were out of the way, then I would get college credits to gush about other peoples’ writing for months.
In essence, my college years were one long sequence of book clubs.
After the gen ed courses, I briefly double-majored in both literature and history. Fiction and non-fiction, if you will. I took two classes in literature a semester and two classes in history. I was already in love with literature when I entered college, but an excellent professor in history during my gen ed years convinced me that history was one of the best stories I could find, so I double-majored. The two majors paired wonderfully together (read Moby Dick, and then study 19th century whaling to see how Melville got there), and my only hang-up was that writing about literature is a completely different animal than writing about history, unless you break the rules like David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose and have the audacity to tell a story. Writing about literature was direct, like sipping on a sazerac in the back of a dive bar with a pack of Marlboros, but writing about history in a purely academic sense was a hard lesson in the passive voice, like backing into a glass of rose. I continually mixed up the two, and then there was a British history professor who claimed I had plagiarized Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (I have never been a fan of Orwell, even before the damn class, and other professors didn’t think it was that close of a match even though they liked my writing, including the dean, so charges were dropped), so that was one too many straws, and history was dropped to a minor. To this day, however, I still balance out a lot of fiction with non-fiction (preferably memoirs and biographies, but I read about history if the story is specific enough), and love to talk about all of it.
Sadly, you can’t go to college forever, and the course load decreased when I demoted history, so I graduated against my will in December of 2000. I futzed around with exploring options into careers in literature or careers in the proximity of literature at the beginning of 2001, but life had other plans, and after a series of diversions I finally moved to what I considered to be a more literary city in San Francisco in 2004. San Francisco had more bookstores than I had seen in whole states in the Midwest; at lunch I would flip a coin and, depending on the outcome, would visit either Alexander’s on Second Street or Stacey’s on Market, which were less than a block from each other. I would occasionally chat books with these booksellers, but finding a chatty bookseller in San Francisco has rarely been my luck. The bookstores in San Francisco are luxurious, “floors of books” and historical sites of Beat poets and quirky adhoc shelves made from planks, but most of the booksellers there seemed…sentenced. Another starry-eyed former literature student stumbling around in a bohemian funk? I could have gotten in line or paid subscriber dues. Yes, the bookstores had author events, or the yearly book fair called Litquake would pop up a rash of author events or panels, and I leaped at tickets. I had one line of questioning for every author and panel: What are you reading? What books inspired you to write the way you do? What is your favorite book?
I tried traditional book clubs in San Francisco, but they usually defaulted to a combination of wine, appetizers, other book events, other authors, or personal stuff unrelated to the book. I loved talking about and listening to others talk about books, so having to shut up and be good for the other topics was maddening.
There are several book club movies out there that remind me of this kind of experience. The most recent is Book Club, which came out last year and has a stellar cast of Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, and Don Johnson, just to name a few. I like every actor in this film and love book clubs and I loathe this movie. The only redeeming aspect of the film is the music and a flying sequence with Garcia and Keaton in the Grand Canyon…and neither one of those topics are related to the title. Books are discussed for about seven minutes in this movie, and the overwhelming reference in the club is to the Fifty Shades of Grey series, a collection of books that isn’t struggling for promotion.
Back in the late aughts there was a movie called The Jane Austen Book Club, which wasn’t a much better script but talked about books a lot more more than Book Club. I watched that movie again after Book Club as a palette-cleanser, and, because it’s January, thought I might be able to follow the calendar in The Jane Austen Book Club this year starting in February with Emma like the characters in the movie did. Still a lot of wine and coffee in that movie, though. Probably my favorite book club film was an adaptation of a book for a Netflix production called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which addresses World War II as well as literary classics and struggles of writers. The members of that group had some questionable edibles (which factors in the plot in more ways than just the title) but the primary food is the stuff of reading, and I could watch that movie on a loop if needed.
I went without a book club for some time after moving to Southern California. One reason was that I briefly belonged to a writing group who wanted someone to organize their writing lives but did not want to write under the organization of what someone else had put together for them. The writer’s group that I belonged to in the Bay Area would write in all kinds of places and locations; I had written with them in Oakland after work, at a cafe in Duboce Triangle on Sundays for a day-long marathon session with a lunch break, at the Richmond District Library in the basement conference room, at the Borderlands Cafe in the Mission, where there was purposely no wi-fi. I tutored kids in writing, science, and math at 826 Valencia and wrote for their 826 Day festivities. But reading…that fell off the radar early and generated a TBR pile in my apartment bedroom that would choke a fire. I kept with writing and thought reading would come in later, when an earthquake killed the power or I ran out of ink.
In Southern California I knew people who read, but either didn’t like to talk about what they read or thought of reading as a non-social activity. I didn’t know how to debate that; when I was in college I was alone a lot, but there was the social aspect of class. Was it possible that one couldn’t have a book club without other aspects: a classroom forcing to read, a bottle of wine, a number count on Goodreads, a hashtag of Sunday sentences? Social media has made online book clubs or book communities a sometimes mine field; if I were to pick up a short story by Woody Allen or quote from Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, do these choices unleash wrath or banishment? Social media can be cruel and often is (I often find myself retreating into just Sunday sentences, but what happens when I want to find Hemingway there?), and a reader has to step carefully.
Do I wish I were part of more readers’ circles? Sometimes. I have the added joy of reviewing books for an online publication, and when the authors reach out and connect over the reviews I have a few hours of feeling like a I have a book club to love words in, a safe space regardless. Most of my friends and family fulfill other curiosities for me, since their interests rarely involve books. Just this past year, however, I stumbled on the greatest fortune: a book club in a book store here in San Diego. The owner of the store selects a fiction book in paperback, discounts it for the month leading up to discussion, and one Thursday night a month a sizable crowd of us discuss the book. The personalities and approaches to the book in that group are nearly stories of their own, and I’m back in class in the 90’s, arguing writers’ choices of POV, characterization, voice, setting, and special effects.
There’s no wine, no appetizers. All the food is brain food. For one hour a month I sit in the room and socialize with a slim paperback in my hand, at the center of all of our thoughts.