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Book Club: Isn't that an Oxymoron?

Randi Hutter EpsteinI know you're never supposed to say never (who knows what life will bring) but here's something that I will never-ever do. And I mean it. I will never join a book club. I don't care if an Ivy League English professor moderates the discussion or it's filled with literati.

I'm not a club person to begin with and, honestly, I just don't get the whole notion of having one about books. Why do I want a gaggle of readers dictating my literature? Picking a book--I mean truly immersing in one--is one of the few things in life that comes without any ties. Everything else has strings attached. I must meet deadlines (and read relevant literature for them). I'm obligated to my husband, four children, two dogs, three goldfish, and one tortoise--all of whom require varying degrees of food, walks, and nurturing. 

There's nothing more thrilling--I mean sheer ecstasy--than finishing a book and having the entire literary universe available for my next venture. It's truly liberating. Unlike say, buying clothes (where price, fashion and so much else cramps your style) or watching a movie at home (where HBO or whatever channel dictates the offerings), you can read whatever book you want. And if you don't want to pay, just go to the library or ask a friend.

If I'm feeling sarcastic, maybe I'll pick up a Somerset Maugham; silly, I'll grab a Bill Bryson. Maybe I'm in the mood for historical fiction or craving real history. Perhaps I'll mull over a Dostoevsky or race through a Harlan Coben. It's my whim and I don't need to defend it to anyone. (I was a bit dismayed after I spent five days re-reading War and Peace this summer and then found out Franzen's fictional Patty did the same thing. I didn't want any kind of bond with her, even if she's just a figment of his seemingly depressed imagination.)

Don't get me wrong. I love talking books with other readers, but I don't want it to be a mandated day of the month or an assignment. I love the spontaneity of sitting on the subway and realizing the person next to me is reading a book that I just finished and perhaps we'll compare notes. Or better yet, I'll find out that a recent acquaintance is reading the same thing and we have common ground we never knew we shared. Even better, I love bonding with other people (there's not many of us) who also loathe the notion of book clubs. Randi Hutter EpsteinTo paraphrase Groucho Marx, I don't care to belong to a book club that accepts people like me as members.

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank. She is an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University and the managing editor of the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine. She lives in New York City with her husband, four children, two dogs, three goldfish and one tortoise.

I'd just like to make the point that book clubs can also function as a way to stretch one's reading. Although I'm not a joiner by nature, I do attend a book group because it forces me to read books outside my comfort zone.
# Posted By PDXReader | 1/17/11 3:10 PM
And I thought I was the only avid reader out there who refused to join a book club! I really enjoyed this post. I have a bookshelf full of unread books and it is always thrilling to pick my next!
# Posted By Kathy | 1/17/11 11:00 PM
Oh, this is great! I totally agree. Not only do I dislike having to read books chosen by others, I also don't like asking others to read books that I've chosen. Now, I just have to get out of that March book selection I said I would make!
# Posted By Jennifer | 1/18/11 11:37 AM
I won't say I will NEVER join a bookclub, but I am very disinclined to do so. I realized several years ago that I will not live long enough to read all the books I want to read. Therefore, I don't want anyone else picking out my reading. For the same reason, I don't re-read.
# Posted By Ann | 1/18/11 11:40 AM
Since book clubs have been so popular for the last -- what? Fifteen years or so, or ever since Oprah put them on the map -- I think it is refreshing to see the other side. Dr. Epstein's points are valid. I, on the other hand, belong to 5 book clubs and will continue to chug along with them, nevertheless. Like PDXReader, I find myself reading books I would not have picked for myself, and enjoying them. I love the conversations that I have with fellow members. Other people often influence me to rethink my views of what I've read, or point out something I had missed. In college, my literature classes were the ones I looked forward to most, which is what encouraged me to start my first group in 1978. Most of my friends are in a book club with me and we have bonded over our book choices and reading, since we really get to know one another through our discussions. Not sure I get her point about the oxymoron, anyway. If she is implying that books are to be read and enjoyed privately, I disagree!

Being a retired librarian, however, I am at a different place in my life from where Dr. Epstein finds herself. And she's right -- she should never say never.
# Posted By Lynette | 1/18/11 12:02 PM
Book clubs...brrrr....so happy to see another who feels as I have always felt and is willing to admit it. All the clubbie "girls" get bent out of shape if you aren't reading Oprah's latest pick. Bbrrr...again. I like to run my brain at my pace, and reading and thinking are my only time for this. For the most part I have no interest in what others think of a book (except for Charles Portis - please read all of his!). >;) I have no need to broaden my reading horizons at this point, I need merely live long enough to read the books I have already stockpiled. I never reread, and I certainly don't read "the latest". I read the odd best seller only to remain culturally relevant when everyone talks about Robert Langdon, otherwise, schlock has no place in my reading, although excellent genre fiction sometimes does.
# Posted By Michele | 1/18/11 1:01 PM
I could not disagree with you more. I belong to three Book Clubs. Through these I have been introduced to books and authors I may never have read. They have stretched my reading interests and have allowed me to discuss the books after I was done reading them. I love to do that!
# Posted By Judi | 1/18/11 1:08 PM
I love to talk about books. I'm sure I got my BA in English because it meant that I could spend half my classes reading books and talking about them. Most of my friends don't read the books I like and/or don't like to talk about them - so book clubs fill that void. I understand all of Dr. Epstein's points, and I don't disagree. But I am always reading, so there's plenty of room for impulse reading in addition to the book club choices.
# Posted By Bev | 1/18/11 2:35 PM
Right on, Randi. It's fine for some people- but not everyone. I need to read what I want to read, when I want to read it and to take as long or as short a time as I please. It's fun to talk about a book with someone at some point but not necessary.
# Posted By Sylvia | 1/18/11 3:59 PM
I'm with Judi: love my 3 book clubs for analysis and debate. Also read whatever I want in spare time.
# Posted By Kathleen | 1/19/11 4:32 AM
I love to read and do so everyday. And yes, I have a full-time job, a house, 2 kids, a dog, a husband and cancer treatments. However, a once a month book that someone else recommends doesn't bother me. As stated by others, it makes you pick up something you might really enjoy. I still can read plenty of other books, and you know what, if I start reading a book and I really dont like it - I stop. I love to share my thoughts about books with others, but the best is when I have recommended a book that everyone loves. Sure, book clubs aren't for everyone, but they have done wonders for publishers and authors everywhere. Personally, reading alone and not sharing your thoughts - what an oxymoron.
# Posted By Selene | 1/19/11 5:52 AM
This is exactly why our book gathering meets irregularly every 3-4 months. We all read what we desire, but the object of sharing our current favorites is the point of getting together and discovering new books - for all of us.
We will sometimes choose a style where everyone reads a different classic, a different short story collection, a different P.D. James' mystery, a different award winner, etc. This is the bond that keeps us together and limits our conversations to books rather than to local gossip, which we eschew.
This format gives us breathing space. No one is dictating what we read but it's an opportunity to spread our reading wings and by the time we gather, most of us are excited about sharing our latest book finds.
# Posted By Susie | 1/20/11 12:42 PM
There are three activities I enjoy with women...playing tennis, going to a speaker series and discussing books. I am not the "lets lunch and shop together" type. A well crafted book club is not necessarily mutually exclusive with "reading just what you like" but rather an extension of that ritual. I am opinionated and stubborn and my willingness to listen to other points of view has enriched my life and given me the opportunity to discover the character trait of willingness. Keep in mind ..."contempt prior to investigation".... it's stifles life.
# Posted By Barbara Fox | 2/1/11 9:03 PM
Selene - "reading alone and not sharing your thoughts - what an oxymoron".
# Posted By Selene | 1/19/11

Selene has gone to the real heart of this topic.
Following the logical path of the argument against joining a bookclub we should:
- not talk about books with friends over dinner
- eliminate Brookbrowse ( the non-joiners know all there is to read)
- stop literature discussions in schools (a waste of reading time)

But more seriously - by restricting ourselves to self-chosen books we restrict the scope of our ideas -but more sinister, is that ideas that go unchallenged become dangerous to others and lead down the path to autocratic and controlled societies. Look at those societies and organizations that control what people should read and therefore what they should think. They are led by people with a distorted world view because they did not have their ideas challenged in any meaningful way. The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, and Rev.Jones in Guyana spring to mind. Joseph Goebbels was a classic case of young boy all alone in attic only reading what confirmed his narrow visions of people. May I recommend Orwell's 1984.
# Posted By Brian Greenway | 2/3/11 11:34 AM
I kind of agree with you on the book club thing. There is one book club I like, however. It's one where the members read whatever they want to read. Then we gather and talk about what each of us read. It introduces me to new titles, enlarges my view of the world of books, makes for great discussions, and I get to read whatever I want. It's so much better than a traditional book club where all the participants read the same book.
# Posted By Annie | 2/3/11 1:55 PM
I agree with it all. I thought I was alone in not wanting to read what someone else wants me to, when they want me to!
# Posted By Deanna | 2/10/11 12:28 PM
I totally disagree, Randi. I think book clubs totally enhance the reading experience. I do agree that not everything is right for everyone. If it is not something you enjoy, then you should not do it then. I personally look forward to my monthly book club meetings more than any other day during the month. I read tons that I want to read but once a month I read something someone else suggested and often find books that I absolutely love that I would have missed out on. Even if I do not like the book, I enjoy discussing why I did not like it and the seeing what others did like about it. I have learned so many things about topics that I never would have read about before. I have grown so close to all of the members in my book club as well. To each their own but for me, Book Clubs are great.
# Posted By Laura | 2/10/11 12:36 PM
Hey, I wonder if retired librarian Lynette is the one I know? I enjoy my book club (started by me because I'd read a book I was eager to discuss and couldn't find anybody who'd read it.) But count me as a one-only book club joiner. Even in retirement I'd find it difficult to keep up with more than one; I agree with many of the reasons for not joining. One club to keep up with makes it possible for me to share what I want to share, read ( on the side) what I want to read, and enjoy lively discussion w/very different people, and sometimes read what I never would have selected. I've learned so much!
# Posted By Jean | 2/10/11 12:59 PM
I agree !!! Not interested in a book club. And Dr. Epstein didn't say she didn't have any interest in discussing books with other readers she said she didn't want to have to read certain books at certain times at a certain pace. She clearly loves talking about books and expressed that. I totally agree - and just because you don't belong to a book club does not mean you will never go outside your normal reading "box" and try other things. Talking about books always opens up new genres to try. I think if you are an avid reader you don't have to be in a book club to know how wonderful of an experience it is to try different authors and different styles of writing. My mother-in-law is in a book club and I can't tell you how much time she has wasted reading material that she said ended up being a waste of time and that she did not enjoy at all. I like to read what I want when I want and share the great books that I find and new authors that I find with my other Reader Friends - It shouldn't become something else a person feels like they HAVE to do. If a Book Club is for you then great but just because it isn't does not mean you don't stretch your imagination or try something new. If you are a lover of books you will just want to be READING, end of story.
# Posted By Michelle | 2/11/11 2:32 PM
I have never had my reading habits stretched more than when I joined BookBrowse. Tho' I agree a group coming together to each discuss different books might be interesting. I don't have leave home or clean my house for book club when I have "Davina and Company" doing their best. Using this newsletter I found a book that still haunts me. S. Kanter's Ordinary Wolf. This book is totally out of character for my reading tastes. If I had suggested this to a book club I think I would have been banned from returning.
# Posted By Penny N | 2/16/11 10:56 AM
Until last year, I had been in 2different book clubs. At first, I did enjoy the idea, but became dissatisfied. Too much chit chat and not enough discussion. I have so many books that I want to read. Selecting books from my own library is very satisfying to me. SOPHIE'S CHOICE, here I come!
# Posted By Barbara | 2/18/11 4:19 AM
I have organized the book group for our public library for almost 15 years. One of the most common comments I hear is, "If it weren't for book group I never would have read this book, and I'm so glad I did!" Books are selected by group concensus. We read all genres--fiction and nonfiction. Nobody is forced to read anything. They can read the book and come to the discussion or not. We have had authors join our discussions through phone chats and in person. We have read books and then gone to an author's public reading. We read a book and then watch the film adaptation for an annual dinner and a movie night. We agree, disagree and sometimes through discussion people may change their original opinion of a book, or not.

Don't worry. I won't ask anyone to read your book, discuss it or invite you to our book group.
# Posted By mrp55 | 4/12/12 7:18 PM
I am much like you and often struggle to finish a book
I have to read when I have several others I would rather
read. Having said that, I am reminded that there are
books I would never read that are worthy of being
read. My group members often help me to understand
where each of us comes from when we read and
interpret a book, which is not a bad way to understand
how others see the world, what they pick out as im-
portant, and why we are each unique individuals. I can
still read what I want and ask that person on the bus
what he or she is reading and start a conversation.

read what I want
# Posted By Sandra Hofsommer | 5/8/12 2:31 PM
I, too was of the mind set that I will NEVER, EVER, join a book club. But a Few years ago I had the pleasure of being a moderator for one at work and I must say I really enjoyed it. That being said I do still like to read what I want to read with out anybody telling me but it is fun to be able to discuss books with people who love them as much as you.
# Posted By Lisa | 5/23/12 12:31 PM
I agree. Why would anyone want to read a book dictated by others. I'm not a "joiner" by nature but I will say that I will NEVER join a book club. Other people dictating my life and timeline - no thanks.
# Posted By Patricia | 5/29/12 1:33 PM
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