Fall is here, if not in temperature, at least by calendar. Ah, Summer, season of reading, I shall miss you. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close, The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass, and The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly were all good books. I also read some ho-hum to dismal ones I won't name. Some of the latter came highly recommended, which strengthens my belief that book preferences, like friend choices, are extremely subjective. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom might be a terrific bore/boor to many, but I like its bulky absurdity. I will read any Franzen book, just as I gravitate toward long-winded people at parties. (I prefer someone else to carry the conversation, but that's just me.)
These hard-wired preferences for certain books (as for certain acquaintances) are perfectly fine and could have carried me through my reading life quite contentedly until I was buried with a book in my hand. But something slightly revolutionary happened to me a decade ago. I joined a book club, and the reading world cracked wide open, spilling one treasure after another at my feet.
Informal social groups for the middle-aged abound in the 2000s. Bunko, travel, cooking, investment, knitting, scrap booking, pedicures, alcohol--whatever your interest, I bet there's a group of like-minded individuals in your neighborhood who meet to do it. I've never been interested in any of these things (except for the alcohol and nail polish). My chief hobby since childhood has been stories, reading and sometimes writing them, and the former definitely trumps the latter in terms of enjoyment. The book clubs (three!) to which I now belong remind me of another social group that flourished in 1950s and 60s suburbia--bridge clubs. Socioeconomically, emotionally, and intellectually, the women in my book clubs remind me of my mother and her contemporaries who loved a good game of bridge and a killer chicken salad. True, today's suburban women aren't exactly the same as those of my mother's day. Many of us work, some aren't married, some don't have children, and not one has a weekly appointment for a wash and set. But we have a keen interest in focusing on a topic (a book) just as my mother's group homed in on a bridge play, all while enjoying a lunch or dinner served in a member's home along with copious amount of coffee or wine. Now, as then, flowers ground a table, gently towered with china and silver (With us, this finery is not compulsory, of course. You can serve a deli platter with beer and no utensils. It doesn't matter.)
Food and finery aside, book club women find pleasure in the focused discussion of ideas and themes. It's a relief to talk about something outside your life that isn't quite as real as current events or as annoying as politics. We find comfort in main ideas and heroes and anti-heroes. Chris Cleeve's Little Bee breaks our heart, but it's okay because he writes her so well. We don't want to read The Kite Runner but we do because Tatiana picked it, and it's the only book we've ever all agreed was splendid. Many books selected have discontented readers, but that's okay. It's perfectly fine to disagree; as in bridge play, don't hold back, just be respectful with your words.
My book clubs have stretched my reading world: Atlas Shrugged, See No Evil, The Art of Racing in the Rain, Hanna's Daughters--these were not my favorites, but I'm glad I tried them. Then, there have been authors like Anita Shreve, Susan Minot, Joyce Carol Oates, and the aforementioned Franzen, who were book club gold. I'll read whatever they write and might never have discovered them if not "forced" to by my book club.
As a solitary reader, I was living well enough through the printed word. But as a suburban book clubber times three, I seem to have found enough characters, ideas, and insight to populate multiple lives. I just might join a fourth one.