Stacey Goldring, host of the monthly First Coast Connect Book Club on 89.9 WJCT and creator of the Chapter Endnotes Bookclub generously invited me to attend one of her meetings a few months ago. What I experienced totally changed my perspective about what book clubs are and what they're supposed to be!
While books have played a big role in much of my life—I was allowed to leave my kindergarten class to go to the library and read, I constantly read after school throughout elementary, middle and high school, and worked my way up to Assistant Manager at Friar Tuck Bookshop in upstate NY throughout high school and on college breaks—but I had never participated in a book club. They sounded like they could be interesting, but I worried that without the right leader, they'd be little more than a highfalutin discussion of the literary theory that would quickly run dry.
I'd heard great things about Stacey's book clubs and knew her to be passionate about reading as well as a terrific supporter of Jacksonville Public Library. So I kept a positive attitude and grabbed a copy (well, downloaded the audiobook) of the special selection for that particular meeting, Joseph Heller's classic Catch-22 and started reading (well, listening - which is the same as reading for you doubting Thomases, but that's a story for another time).
It's a long, long, long book. I mean long. 20 hours (and one minute, so even longer). I haven't read much fiction lately, but this one is exceptional - the word count is more than double an average non-fiction or popular fiction book is today. From the narration, it isn't surprising. It has a Moonlighting-like pace (Gen-X reference... for later generations maybe The West Wing or Scandal) with tons of dialogue, movement, and in-depth exposition. On every commute, errand and during yard work, I was rapt by the tale of John Yossarian and the fighting 256th.
As the book club meeting approached, I realized, "Uh oh. I'm not going to finish this book. Not even close." Now what?
I did the best I could and went to the book club meeting, anxious that I'd be asked about my feelings about chapter 40 (long book), or what the motivation was for a character I hadn't heard about.
It was nothing at all like I'd expected!
The meeting was held at the beautiful Epping Forrest Country Club (remember, these are subscription book clubs, so the experience is carefully crafted). There I met Sue Ann, Lisa, Ruth, Randi and Prasanna (I hope I didn't forget anyone as I'm writing this!). We had lunch from a fantastic buffet, learned about one another and chatted about Irma, the threatening storm approaching Florida. I thought about asking any of them if they'd finished the book, but I held my tongue.
Then the book discussion started.
First of all, one of the first questions Stacey asked was, "How many of you finished the book?" I was pleasantly surprised that more than half of us hadn't finished it, and that was OK. Prasanna even said that she couldn't get herself to finish the book, so she tried to watch the movie and gave up on that too. If I had known that the price of entry isn't necessarily finishing every book—and that watching the movie was socially acceptable—I would have done this years ago!
Those who did finish shared their impressions and those who didn't were able to easily join the conversation. Even though I didn't finish the book, it was clear that it came out around the time M*A*S*H began airing so I could draw some parallels between the two regarding humor vs. futility. I kind of sounded like I knew what I was talking about and others, including Stacey, were able to pick up on that thread and explore it.
Not only was the conversation engaging, the members of the group were colorful and open, telling personal stories that reminded them of passages in the book, sharing opinions and insights, but—this made the meeting even better—everyone left their politics at the door. This surely made it tough to get into everything about a book written about a war, yet truly refreshing in a world where 98% of your Facebook feed and the majority of your day-to-day conversations can be littered with politics if you're not careful.
The research that Stacey had done on the book also made for extremely engaging discussions. She explored the writing style, the circular reasoning that is at its core, the laborious editing process and how it was influenced by everything from Gogol (whom I knew about from last year's NEA Big Read/Jax Reads book The Namesake, check it out!) to Abbott and Costello. Everyone was able to get in on the conversation.
It didn't stop there. Stacey further enhances the conversation by using multimedia. She pulled up a clip from Mike Nichols' film where Academy Award Winner Alan Arkin as Yossarian is enlightened to the meaning of Catch-22 by veteran character actor, Academy Award Nominee Jack Gilford as Doc Daneeka. It's a must-see clip that explains the concept in the best/most frustrating way possible. Click to watch for yourself.
The discussion continued on the topics of critical reception for the book (I'm not a big fan of the characterization "You'll love it or you'll hate it," but that was truly the way it was reviewed), how it found a cult following among college students (which provided more discussions about college students in the context of war), and Stacey presented some seemingly unusual "read-alikes" for the book including another satire that blends horror and cynical humor, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's 1932 novel Journey to the End of the Night.
So, yes, there were the highfalutin literary dissections, but also the "Um... I didn't read the whole thing but I've got some thoughts," discussions. Overall, the preparation that Stacey put into the club along with the passion and enthusiasm of her and the other wonderful ladies with whom I was privileged to spend the long lunch (gentlemen, you are missing out!) opened my eyes to what a book club could and should be.
I look forward to finding my next read perhaps for one of JPL's own book clubs (hang on for the shameless plugs); maybe Books for the Bold held at Bold Bean Coffee on Stockton St. at 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month where the selection is from a topic, not a single title, or the Flamingo Book Club at the Beaches Branch Library which recently featured a Skype visit by national bestselling author and columnist Dave Barry (and in November there'll be another Skype visit by author Tim Dorsey!), or the Northeast Florida UFOlogists Book Club at the Southeast Regional Library complete with a drum circle... And of course, I can't forget the First Coast Connect Book Club, held monthly by Stacey on First Coast Connect. Heck, I'm so jazzed up I'm going to subject my staff to my own community relations and marketing book club with Stacey's model at my side!
What has been your book club experience? What are your expectations of a book club? Have any to recommend? Do you have one of your own that you'd like to hold at one of our libraries? Let us know! I hope my Chapter Endnotes experience dispelled some myths, maybe it even put you in the mood to read a good book and go talk to others about it.
Written by Chris Boivin
Assistant Director for Community Relations and Marketing
Jacksonville Public Library