How to Do Book Club Right

Bookworms are generally a reclusive lot, and so they often don’t get too many chances for comfortable socialization. The idea of book clubs was created so that book nerds could mingle and socialize, safe in the familiar waters of their favorite thing that they can finally share with someone. This is not to say book clubs are a perfect utopia. Far from it. When any group awkward people comes together, even with the best intentions, things can get weird and silly and strange really quickly, especially if you’re old enough for your book club to involve going through several bottles of wine per session, the really fun stuff. You can still have a great book club if you just remember these pointers.

(Note: All situations and rants in this piece are purely hypothetical and are definitely not based on real people, living or dead, or dead to me. Definitely not.)

On Picking a Book: If you are the one who has the power to pick a book for the group, wield it carefully. Come up with a list of books you’d be interested in beforehand and, if at all possible, run them by your fellow book club buddies before you pick something. Make sure you can actually get the book you end up choosing. Libraries or bookstores can help you get multiple copies of the book you need, but you’ll probably have to wait for enough copies to be delivered to your location, so don’t go out and try to grab all the books the morning of your first club meeting.

If you don’t have the power to pick out a book, hopefully they’ll ask you what the book they want to choose is. Ideally, you’re with a group of friends and this is all done very democratically or you all have the same taste so it would’ve gone well anyway. That doesn’t always happen, but the best you can do in these situations is let yourself try something you normally wouldn’t.

On Planning Meetings: There is, of course, the important business of planning so that everyone can make it; the right time, the right place. What’s slightly trickier though, and definitely just as important, is planning how much reading will be expected between the meetings. You have to remember not just how busy everyone is, but what everyone’s average reading speed is, and maybe also how long you can keep these books if they are on loan. Also, if you really care about your club buddies, you will not make them stop reading on a crazy cliffhanger or otherwise intense part. Why would you hurt your friends in such a way? Why? Why?????

On Reading: Two things really need to be said on reading, one for each type of person who comes to a book club; the ones that do the reading, and the ones that don’t.

First, don’t be afraid if you didn’t have time to do all the reading. This is supposed to be a fun time. We all have busy lives and understand. The more important thing here is making and being with friends. Of course, I’m assuming here that you genuinely tried to do the reading. If you’re one of those people that take the book club book, laugh, then use it to prop up a wobbly end table, know that you are not my favorite type of person but I suppose we can all make our own choices, and I’ll just choose to remind you that discussion will be generally enriched if more people do the reading, and you presumably signed up for a book club to do some reading. You can choose to call me a nag or a mom friend and I will choose to glare at you from across the room stonily for the rest of the meeting.

Second, please don’t get mad at people who don’t do the reading. We all live busy lives, understand?  Maybe they’re here more for the company and good time. There’s no reason you can’t enjoy a discussion about the text even when one person has more good will than book knowledge. Unless everyone in your club except you hasn’t done the reading. This happens. If it does, just drown your rage in this week’s bottle of Riesling.

On Extras: So all you nominally need is a book, some friends and a place to meet for book club, but sometimes it’s really fun to sometimes do something extra, whether it’s a craft or a game, maybe watch the movie adaptation of the book so you can tear into it and throw things at your TV. Finding some activity that relates to your book can be really fun. People who think a craft or game sounds childish just have not had enough joy or glitter glue in their life lately. Making them participate in these extras will give them both. Do it!

On Snacks: Maybe you thought snacks would be categorized under fun, extra bits for your book club. You were wrong. Tasty, delicious snacks and beverages, especially adult beverages, are essential for the success of a book club. Really, they are essential for anything and everything in life.

There you go, all you need to have a great book club. What are you waiting for, ya little book-scamp you? Go out there and get some friends. Reduce your crippling social anxiety. Go, go!


John Lewis’s March: on Marching and History

The graphic novel memoir is a subgenre that has birthed many classics of the late 20th/early 21st century. There’s Maus by Art Spiegelman, which my edgy high school English teacher got permission to have us read in lieu of Night by Eli Wiesel my freshman year. There’s also Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which  I read without the prompt of any radicalizing teacher and enjoyed anyway. That one was adapted into a movie. Alison Bechdel, as in the woman who invented the Bechdel test, created Fun Home, which was adapted into a Broadway musical. No, there wasn’t any dancing or singing in the book; people just loved it that much. I enjoyed all of these books myself, and am always on the lookout for more good graphic novel memoirs, so March was a real treat for me.

John Lewis’ three part memoir March chronicles his life as a leader in the Civil Rights movement. As a politician, he could’ve easily come out with a glossy regular book with a fancy title and a picture of him posing in a thoughtful yet welcoming manner on the cover, but he took the more adventurous route, which I suppose is something he’s been known for, thanks to his career, so we really can’t be too surprised.

The most impactful moments in these books, for me, are the many harrowing moments and encounters Lewis had during his participation in some of the biggest moments of the 60’s Civil Rights protest, like the Freedom Rides or the Selma to Montgomery march. People were at risk of being killed, savagely so, at many of these events, and the visual depiction of these violent confrontations really caught my attention. As much as the sixties were a time when protests and acts of civil disobedience were documented, photographed, and filmed, seeing the event depicted by a person who was there enhanced the experience. Even if a camera was in the exact right place at the exact right time, I’m not sure I would feel the same looking at it as I would looking at Nate Powell’s artistic renderings of John Lewis’ life.

When an event becomes history, it becomes set in a sort of mental stone. Any traces of uncertainty  are wiped away. In the moment, of course, even the key players of any movement can’t say for sure what may or may not happen.  The more we see it in news reels and then eventually on YouTube and in history class, the less “real” it becomes. Even the bad things, truly terrible things, can get a fatigued, inevitable air to them. Lewis’ retelling strips away some of that history varnish and reminds people how uncertain the future is, even for brave people doing brave things.

I kept this in mind while making my own decisions about political activism recently, and that resulted in my booking a bus ticket leaving Chicago today and arriving at Washington DC in the morning, with just enough time to join the Women’s March on Washington. I’ve felt fear and confusion over just what I’m supposed to do with myself now ever since the election, but looking to the stories and examples of leaders like John Lewis, I realized that I could make a difference, I could choose to let people know where I stand and what I’ll stand, and march, for.

We should all thank people like Lewis who not only lived through harrowing times, but also chose to share their story with the world. It makes everyday people take stock of their own lives and realize they have more to give and more to say than they maybe once thought. See you next week guys, on the other side of this.

How Unfortunate.

Sorry, the person you are trying to reach is now binge watching a Netflix show based on a beloved series from her childhood. Please leave a message after the beep. *beeeeeeep*

If all has gone right with the world, I’ll be ignoring all my homework today and taking in the new Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events. This was a lengthy series that I liked reading when I was younger. The intriguing mystery of the Baudelaire orphans’ family and VFD and Count Olaf made all the books fun to read through and a pain to wait for. I remember being nervous, and then ultimately disappointed when Hollywood thought they could make a movie out of the first three books. I mean, they weren’t Harry Potter or anything but jamming three distinct books into one Jim Carrey extravaganza was too much. Still, even at that age it was not the first time Hollywood had wrecked a book I cared about, so I didn’t let it get to me.

Years later and, I’ll be honest, I hadn’t even thought about that series or the ill-fated film adaptation in a while. Then Netflix started teasing the series. I’ll be honest, part of me wondered if kids would know or care about this series still, what with me being such an old crone and all, but another part was instantly relieved of a regret I didn’t realize I had, even though I hadn’t yet seen the series at all. I still haven’t, of course, because obviously this post was created before I locked myself into the Netflix bunker, but I know that a standard quality Netflix series will be much more capable of treating the books to an adaptation they deserve. Sure, adapting books into a TV series or miniseries is bordering on cliche now, but looking at Series of Unfortunate Events, I know there’s a reason for that. Books, especially book series, are just better able to breath when they are more room to breathe. Readers don’t have to hear about why there favorite scene was cut for budget and time constraints in a TV series, (unless you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or some other series so dense people still have to cut it down.)

Friday the 13th is supposed to be an unlucky day, but this one seems pretty lucky because I’ll be able to revisit and rediscover that enjoyed as a kid and A Series of Unfortunate Events will get to enjoy a new audience and a new chance in this crazy moving picture biz.

Better Know a Crazy Writer: Emily Dickinson

Okay, so Emily Dickinson is probably only crazy by modern standards. By crazy, I mean she probably would never have used social media. She lived a very secluded life, staying so close to her home in Amherst, Massachusetts that some might be tempted to call her a shut in, an agoraphobic, until you read her beautiful poems about nature and wilderness. It was people she shied away from more than anything else.

She allowed herself only a small group of friends throughout her life. Well, either she did or her family life required her to. As the youngest daughter, she was made to take care of her aging, demanding parents while the rest of her family got married, moved away and made lives for themselves. One choice she definitely did make for herself was to keep her poetic work closely guarded and private. She shared poems with a few of her few close friends and attempted to have a couple published, but she felt they were butchered by editors messing with her punctuation and distinct style. By the time she died of an illness at age 55, she’d written 1,800 poems, most of which she was content to never let see the light of day.

See? Crazy. What if someone had 1,800 photos of food on their phone that they never posted to Instagram? Madness, we would cry, madness! Upon her death, her siblings cracked open her bedroom to find piles and piles of paper, something similar to an episode of hoarders, except instead of decades worth of old newspapers and cat corpses, they found piles of groundbreaking poetry that would forever change the direction of the genre. Dickinson,( along with Walt Whitman,) was considered one of the first heralds of the modernist poetry movement, a century before it ever started. This is, perhaps, easier for someone who occupied such an internal world, one that did not let publishers and editors of the day to alter her poetic voice.

This part of Dickinson’s story definitely has an allure for many writers. She kept her work so quiet and private, but after she was gone people realized she was a genius after all and worshipped all her work that had been shut away, misunderstood and ignored for so long. I suppose that’s a fantasy that could easily apply to non-writers as well. You’ll see. You’ll all see! People will think I’m a brilliant genius after all you losers are in the ground! They’ll build statues of me! Monuments! That’s not quite Dickinson’s story though. It’s always a bit more complicated.

Her sister and brother-in-law undertook a labor of love in collecting all of Emily’s poems and getting them published, but in doing so they did the very thing she hated to see done to her poetry in her life: they severely edited it. The strange punctuation, her infatuation with the em dash, all mostly edited out of her first published collection. For a while after that edition, people continued to edit and alter Dickinson’s pieces. It took a long time for people to think publishing her poems “as is” was a good idea, but that’s when they really took off in popularity, and when people started to peer into the strange, private life of this crazy recluse poet. Her legacy was still misunderstood and mangled for a while after her death, even by her own, arguably well-meaning family. That’s the danger of being quietly, brilliantly ahead of your time. People assume you are mistaken and “fix” things for you.

Now, of course, publishers print Dickinson’s poems as she wrote them as much as possible. This can be difficult, as she never titled or numbered her poems, and in her later years her keeping of them got especially un-ordered and haphazard, but people try their best, because they know they owe this poor quiet mind that much.


One of Dickinson’s few portraits.