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April 14, 2008

National Library Week: Unpredictable Book Clubs

Posted by carol
In celebration of National Library Week (April 13-19), we've invited librarians to guest blog over the next five days. contributor Nora Rawlinson of introduced us to these marvelous librarians, who will be sharing a wealth of insights and reading suggestions. Leading off is Misha Stone, a librarian and book club facilitator at the Seattle Public Library in Seattle, Washington.

One of my favorite things about my job is my book group. As a Fiction Librarian, I get to talk with readers all day about what they like to read. That I get paid to do this is one of the most phenomenal things ever. I really love the work that I do, connecting readers with books, connecting with them over stories and the power they have to teach and entertain us. That I get paid to engage others in literary discussion --- it just doesn't get any better than that.

Like many public librarians, I was an English literature major. But once I left the cozy, intellectual environs of my small Vermont college, I realized that in the "real world" people don't get to sit around all day talking about the themes of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!. It doesn't take a college graduate too long to realize that during their college years they were breathing the rarified air only found in academic settings. Okay, or maybe your local indie coffee shop.

As a librarian and a book group facilitator, I get to tap into that world again. Don't get me wrong, my book group discussions are not nearly as heady or, dare I say, as "literary" as my college classroom discussions were. Nor do I think you need a college degree to engage in literary discussions or an English background to lead a group. If anything, I find that I enjoy my book group's discussions better than some of my college classes. For one, I find that I and the readers I talk with are connecting on a personal level to the books they read. They respond from an emotional place as well as an intellectual one.

Getting older myself, I now have more experience to bring to my own readings, as do my fellow readers. I guess I am trying to say, but I'm being long-winded about it, is that I am not trying to recapture my college classroom, and I discovered that I didn't really want to. I want to meet with readers of various backgrounds, varying perspectives, with different life experiences from my own. Not that my college didn't provide that (although it was, I have to admit, fairly homogeneous), but that the whole spirit of the library serving all walks of life makes a library book group in some ways more exciting and unpredictable.

As an aside, one of my favorite lines from a movie has got to be in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon (as Will Hunting) tells the Harvard student he upstages in a bar: "You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library."

Recently, when my group discussed Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants (a novel about a circus during the Great Depression), I sat in awe, listening to the varied impressions of each member in the group. I was reminded how we each bring our experiences, our perceptions, our whole selves, to what we read. The readers in my group surprise, impress and teach me something every time.

As a book group leader and librarian, I often fight the perception that I must "know" everything or that there are distinct answers to the questions that I throw out. One reader confided in me at the close of the discussion how she felt that the group was so smart, somehow inferring that she was not or that being "smart" was a requirement to join in discussion.

Yes, I am impressed by the intelligence and the thoughtfulness of many of the readers in the group. But it's about so much more. It's about sharing your experience, learning from the experiences of others. It's about bringing your whole self to the reading of the book and sharing with the group. We may not always express our reactions, thoughts or questions with articulate ease (I know I don't!). Sometimes we are still processing what we have read. Some of us are better at articulating our thoughts out loud, some of us better in writing, and some readers just feel and cannot (or prefer not) to express.

A book group should be like a circus --- a place where we can all be different and all fit in.

---Misha Stone