Two years ago, after my mom read The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, like many inspired Americans, we set out to form a tiny book club of two. We established only two rules: we would alternate book selections, and if one of us truly hated a book, we could say so and we would put the work aside and choose another (a circumstance that has not yet come to pass).
Book clubs are common in America, which is rather ironic. Like the overabundance of gyms in a land of the obese, thousands upon thousands of book clubs exist in a country of the illiterate. In America, we are nothing if not triers, ceaselessly beating our heads against the wall.
Most book clubs consist of half a dozen or more readers (often stay-at-home-moms or retired women, though not always). And because there are many people involved, reading selections generally adhere to the mean, focused upon the trendy and the award-winning.
A book club of two is a slightly different beast.
It is, in its way, less democratic. You pick a book. Then I pick a book. We don’t discuss it before hand, and there is no vetoing selections. With fewer people to please, choices can be more idiosyncratic (or not…smaller does not automatically mean better).
There is also more mental strategizing.
Free from the demand of trying to find a book that will please a large swathe of fellow readers (Go Set a Watchman, which Mom and I didn’t read, no doubt was an American Book Club favorite), I am still obliged to consider the tastes and interests of my One Fellow BC Member.
This is, I think, a more interesting way to read socially. With a larger group, any choice I make is likely to have been read by some and not by others. But with only Mom and I, I know precisely what books she’s read, what genres, what authors and styles and literary periods. This allows me to make very precise choices: books I know Mom will be familiar with and enjoy; other books I know she would not have read on her own and may yet engage with.
And, of course, I will know what to steer away from (sorry Doctor Sleep, you and I will have to get down to business on our own time).
The great joy of a book club is introducing your fellow reader to something you find fascinating that they may not have considered. I have had the distinct pleasure of foisting upon my mom the Harry Potter saga, Michael Reynolds’ multivolume biography of Ernest Hemingway, the Hercule Poirot mysteries of Agatha Christie (we’ve made it through the first three), and the fabulous biography of Charles Addams, A Cartoonist’s Life, by Linda H. Davis.
In reverse, I have been pleasantly surprised by books I never would have picked up on my own: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor, Mudbound by Hilary Jordan (this novel was so compelling that I chose Jordan’s second novel, When She Woke, as a selection of my own), and A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby.
Other surprises arose over the course of the last two years: I, who primarily read fiction, quite often chose nonfiction titles for our book club (The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, An Autobiography by Agatha Christie); Mom, who primarily reads modern fiction, has opted for most of the classics we’ve read together (All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck).
There are writers we have, unofficially, settled upon as scribes we both greatly admire: JK Rowling (in addition to Harry Potter, we’ve readThe Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling); Andre Dubus III (Townie, Dirty Love, and The Garden of Last Days); Agatha Christie (the aforementioned autobiography and Poirot mysteries, as well as And Then There Were None); and John Irving (The World According to Garp,and upcoming: Avenue of Mysteries).
We do not go in much for deep analysis of the books we read. We don’t pick them apart. But we do enjoy discussing the parts that we like, or the parts we find less successful, and if there is a movie version, we try to make time to see the movie and compare the two (And Then There Were None is a fairly successful movie, whereas The World According to Garp falls rather flat, in spite of some excellent scenes and acting).
I think the best book clubs work when you do not try to limit yourself to any particular category. A book club is a delicate thing, easily destabilized by overthinking. It is always good to allow for a bit of randomness, a few whimsy selections (The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood). A good book club is like a long road trip, and as John Steinbeck said about road trips:
“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us…Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it. Only then do the frustrations fall away. In this a journey is like a marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”
Nor is it very profitable to aim for books that you Think You Should Read. The world is full of weighty tomes that English teachers believe every man and woman should torture themselves with (Moby-Dick, which we have not attempted, thank god). And while there is nothing wrong with such books—many are, indeed, worth the time—organizing a book club around only these kinds of works would surely spell disaster. Hence my continued wavering about whether or not to read David Copperfield.
I should say too that reading with someone else makes you more aware of your own reading habits, the speed at which you read, the way in which your own life can support or overtake your reading. Because no two readers are the same, it is always advisable to build in as much latitude as possible. Mom and I have no set schedule for reading, no time limit.
Indeed, my wife and I have a rather more unofficial book club of two, one not nearly so regular. We may read only a few books together throughout the year. A strict enforcer of Book Club Etiquette might not call it a book club at all, but it has worked for us and allowed our marriage to be enlivened by reading many novels together and sharing our observations and insights: Little Children by Tom Perrotta, Harry Potter again, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and The Dead Zone by Stephen King, to name a few.
If there is any lesson to be learned from an intimate book club that includes but you and another person, it is that books have great power to bring people together. We read to learn about other lives and other worlds. And when we share that with someone, we learn about their life and their world as well.
And that, friends and neighbors, ain’t all that bad.