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April 25, 2008

When Reading Selections Go Awry

Posted by carol
Regular contributor Jamie Layton shares some of the highs and lows of her reading group's selections...and why she might consider breaking some book club rules.

I'm in a quandary. I started and facilitate a reading group that has been meeting at our store for more than five years. Some members have attended since our first meeting in November '02 and some have joined within the last few months, but we've been going strong with an average turn-out of eight interesting, intelligent and diverse women who like to read. Selections over the years have run from Salinger's short stories to Barbara Kingsolver's essays; Steinbeck's classics to Eggers' modern fiction, House of Sand and Fog (our first book) to Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits (our most recent book). We've discovered a strong proclivity for historical fiction and short stories, and almost every meeting includes at least one member stating, "I didn't vote for this book, but I'm glad I read it!"

Every six months I spend days putting together a list of potential titles from which to choose our next books. I include at least twelve titles from a wide variety of genres utilizing all the tools that I as a bookseller have access to, including suggestions from the group. Members are emailed a brief summary of each book (including any important reviews or awards) that they may look over at their leisure. At the next meeting, each woman votes for the six books she would most like to read from the proffered list; I tally the votes and voila! The six top vote getters comprise our next reading list.

Sometimes we accidentally end up with a list in which a majority of the titles touch on the same subject, like the spring we read Confederates in the Attic and March and The Known World. How to predict that the Civil War titles which only comprised a quarter of the original list would get picked and end up being half of the final list! Then there are the winters when the entire group starts griping because "we always read sad books! Why don't we ever read happy books?" My stock answer to this complaint is that "there is very little to discuss in a happy book." (Yes, I know, there are always exceptions. But really, have you ever tried to fill two hours by discussing a happy-happy-joy-joy book? Let me know.)

Right now we are in the middle of our current list. And after years of picking very few duds, we've really managed to stick it to ourselves this time. I have to say in all fairness that the year leading up to this list was pretty darn good and hard to top. We devoured Julia Child's My Life in France, swooned at The Awakening & Other Stories (Kate Chopin), dove into The Highest Tide, sprung for A Thousand Splendid Suns in hardcover and finished the year with a lively January discussion of Whistling in the Dark, in which we were joined via telephone by author Lesley Kagen. Maybe we unintentionally set ourselves up. All I know is that so far our current list sucks.

We started off in February reading a contemporary classic set in Latin America (and recently made into a movie) that, while we all agreed the writing was exquisite, we did not care for at all. Adding insult to injury, it was a very long, time consuming book. Next up was a novella (or was it short stories?) that totally missed the mark in terms of character development, depth of plot, etc. Someone mentioned that maybe a second or third reading would somehow bring it all together, but I doubt anyone is going to devote any more precious book time to this one. Now we are into dud number three --- an aid worker's account of two years spent in an Asian country. The locale is totally foreign to me so that is somewhat interesting, but the writing is very tedious, almost completely narrative and I am very, very disappointed.

I am now working under the superstition that the next three books left to read will probably follow in the footsteps of their list mates. What should I do? Risk losing new members whose only experience with our reading group is these three books? Change our list, which I never, ever do as a rule but which might appease everyone? Cross my fingers and toes and tell myself we couldn't possibly have picked six blah books in a row? I really don't know what I'll end up doing. but I do know that I only have two days left to figure it out and read the aid worker's book because another thing I almost never, ever do is not finish a book. Who said rules aren't made to be broken?

---Jamie Layton