Once a month, I meet with a group of whip-smart ladies in Sheep Meadow to discuss books. I leave in a kind of intellectually-charged daze, my mind alight with new observations and re-readings of the book at hand. This book club has reminded me why book clubs exist: to make us better readers. It has revealed to me — in a way that teaching and studying in the classroom never did — that there are different kinds of readers. In school, there was a kind of prescriptiveness to the sorts of observations we were able to make. We never talked about whether we liked Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Hester Prynne or Humbert Humbert, or whether we felt that a particular authorial strategy worked or not, or whether the book was just too damned long. Instead, we focused on identifying the devices at play in a given text, unpacking the language, charting the course of a particular theory through the plot in front of us, tracing the cultural and literary and familial influences that may have shaped the design of the book. There was something borderline scientific about it, as if we were pinning insects to a board and itemizing their parts with numbers. “Yes, yes — 3a., catachresis used here.” But I’ve come to learn that this academizing of the act of reading — while it made me appreciate and respect The Author and The Text — subjugated the very human impulse to decide for myself whether or not I cared about the characters. Whether or not the book was fun to read. Whether or not I would recommend it to a friend, a sister, a colleague. Every book was important, serious, worthy by virtue of its inclusion on the syllabus — whether it was a joy to read or not. (No thank you, Waverly.) My book club has restored a sense of readerly humanity to me, has granted me permission to emote around books in a way I’ve not indulged since I was a teen. It has made me realize that good readership can come in many forms, and I’d like to acknowledge those forms here:
Thank you, Jess, my strong feminist reader. I find myself smirking as I read a particularly gender-charged section: “Aha, just wait until Jess sees this passage; she’s going to have a field day.” I love your conviction, your passion, your occasional contrarian-ness. You add rich color to our conversations, and I respect your willingness to stake an alternative reading when the group seems to have swung in a different direction.
Thank you, Diana, for your groundedness, for showing me how to connect to characters who are so different from me. Your empathy for the characters in books — your willingness to meet them where they are, understand them without passing judgement — astounds me. You are generous in the way you read.
Thank you, Charlotte, for your laser-sharp observations. Nothing slips by you. You are one of the most alert, diligent readers I’ve ever encountered, and I can always count on you to call out a character or author for something untoward or unlikeable or problematic. I think mainly of you when I am scoring these books. “Charlotte will disagree, but I’m giving this a generous four…”
Thank you, Inslee, for the biting wit and skepticism with which you read; you make even the dryest of books racy and hilarious. Of everyone in the book club, I’m always most surprised by what you have to say; I can never predict whether you will like or hate something, will laugh or nod at something. But whatever it is, you will startle me with your well-observed (often sardonic) commentary.
Thank you, Susie, for your inquisitiveness, your curiosity. I love that you return to and re-read passages to make sure you understand what has happened. You demonstrate such devotion and earnestness in your reading that it makes me want to be more careful in my reading.
Thank you, Diana, for your lowkey brilliance. You will shruggingly toss out an observation that entirely reshapes the way I think about a character, a plot line, an authorial decision. “Yeah, well, she needed to tell the story that way in order to build suspense,” you’ll say, picking at a blade of grass and glancing around unassumingly. BOOM. My understanding of the book has been reformed.
Thank you, Gina, for your investment in the books and characters we read. I know few people who care more about what happens in literature than you do — the way you talk about characters and plotlines, with such passion and empathy and frustration, engages me deeply in the books we read, makes me see the books as extensions of our own experiences.
ICYMI: please read along! And if you’re in NYC, shoot me an email to reserve a spot for our next gathering. We’ll be meeting in the art studio of the fabulously talented Inslee, who just recently sent me this moving article on french fries and parenting that had us both in tears.
Post Script: The Best Books I’ve Read in the Last Two Years.
We talked about a lot of books on this blog, but here is a shortlist — the can’t miss, must read of the bunch.
+All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva. Easily my favorite book we’ve read in book club thus far. Wildly imaginative, creepy, provocative. The stories sit with you for a long while. Full review here.
+The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine. In a totally different category: this chick lit thriller slayed me. I was reading into the wee hours of the morning with this one. I can’t recall the last time a book shocked me as much as this one did. Such a thrill ride.
+In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. This quiet little book on language and identity doubles back on itself. It reads simply but you’ll find yourself treading in deep waters, mulling over the metacommentary for weeks after. But what is language after all? you’ll find yourself wondering. Potent, big stuff.
+Upstream by Mary Oliver. A poetic, stirring set of musings on nature and life and boundaries and blurrings between them. This left me philosophical.
+The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini. One of the funkiest, richest books I’ve ever read. A lot happening here on the gender front between love and sexual assault, patriarchies and matriarchies, inheritances and bloodlines, silence and speech. Very very very very weird and very very very very good.
+Open by Andre Agassi. OK, I might have read this over two years ago. But just over. This was one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. A fascinating and insightful (poetic!) look at tennis and its psychology, plus juicy drama about one of the biggest sports stars of the 90s. Really good read.
What about you? If you could nominate just one book as the best book you’ve read in the last two years, what would it be?
P.S. All the things you need for fall, plus this dress and this blouse (for date night — ps it’s lined). And maybe this dress for work (Chanel vibes!)
P.P.S. In case you’re already on the hunt for a festive look for the holiday circuit: this blouse or — wait for it — this epic $98 dress, which feels like a more sophisticated approach to glitter. Kind of like my boots in that cool gunmetal hue. LOVE.
P.P.P.S. 10 books that will change your life.
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13 thoughts on “How to Read.”
Do yourselves a favour, read Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. And enjoy the luckiest discussion. Like no novel you have read before. And so relevant to what is happening now in the US and other countries with ‘diverse’ societies.
Thanks, Rose! I’d heard good things about this book before. Will absolutely add this to my list. xx
Oh, how I wish I could join you in NYC for book club! It sounds like you have a lovely group going, and I love how each person brings a different quality to the proverbial table. So nice of you to reflect on this!
In Other Words was AMAZING (I love all of Jhumpa Lahiri’s books, honestly!) I find it so amazing that she’s mastered Italian to the degree that she now writes in it — mindblowing!
The best books I’ve read during the past two years … hmm! Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things jumps out at me, as does The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, by Jeff Hobbs. As far as fiction goes, I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie last summer and it was AMAZING. Can’t sing her praises highly enough! Also: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (have heard that it’s polarizing, and of course I’d rank Pride & Prejudice in a higher league, but I really enjoyed it!) and Rufi Thorpe’s Dear Fang, With Love.
I haven’t even gotten into coffee table books or cookbooks! I can cover most of what I’d want to say with two women who happen to be married: Grace Bonney (In the Company of Women) + Julia Turshen (Small Victories; Feed the Resistance; Now & Again). Love them.
Ah I wish you could come to one, too! Thanks for these recs — I’ve been meaning to get to Strayed’s collection after dozens of referrals, and I’m not familiar with Hobbs. I wasn’t as into Americanah. I found it very difficult to get through. But that’s a different topic for a different day and I’m currently feeling fuzzy on the particulars of the book and don’t want to say something untoward or ungenerous out of turn…
Love the coffee table book recs!!
Now I’m super curious about your feelings on Americanah!!
I recently picked up a copy of the new Rebecca Solnit (Call Them by Their True Names) and am reaaaalllly looking forward to digging in!
I love book recommendations and have a LONG list on my phone of books I need to read. Thank you! I loved The Immortalists and Before We Were Yours.
Have heard amazing things about both of these! Need to get to The Immortalists — it feels like required reading! xo
A Little Life—yes! Or, a lighter — but still brilliant and poignant look at friendship in NYC: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children.
I think the best novel I’ve read recently is Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, which documents the “manifest destiny” of North America through the history of two French orphans and their descendants. It’s about logging and place and progress versus salvation and not nearly as dry as I’m making it sound! And I agree with you on All the Names They Used for God. So original and alive—thanks much for introducing it to me.
Thank you for the reminder about the Messud! I think you’d mentioned it at some point and it sounds fascinating. The Proulx piece sounds meaty; I’m intrigued!
Everything by Jesmyn Ward! Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing are the best books I’ve read in the last ten years!
Ooo thank you!!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was extraordinary. It’s not for the faint of heart..it’s complicated and the subject is often hard to read but it’s beautifully written.
I also really enjoyed Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg. Also incredibly well written but tough topic.
I read a lot and it takes books like these to catch my interest. Something that’s not familiar, trite and predictable.
They’re literally some the best books I’ve read lately and they’re from 2015/2016. I’m not sure what’s happened to the good literature in the last couple of years but wow. It’s been slim pickings.
Jen! My sister, cousin, and best friend have been urging me to read A Little Life for months and months but I am too scared to read it! I think it will scar me too deeply. But I am so intrigued.
Thanks for these recommendations, though; adding the Clegg to the list. Sounds like you are a very discerning reader!