Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Discuss Among Yourselves

I belong to two different reading groups and, recently, I've been thinking of taking a break from both of them. Not a permanent break, just a hiatus.

One of my groups meets once a month and the other meets about every six weeks. That means that every two months I have to read three books for my groups. And that is certainly a manageable number. But I am having a problem with it. It is not that I can't read three books in two months but I am, more and more, finding that I want to use the time I take to read those three books to read different books.

There was a time in my life when I devoured books. I could easily read two books a week and often more. But I was younger and, probably most importantly, in a much less stressful job at that time. Now my schedule won't allow that and I need more sleep than when I was younger. I'm lucky if I read one book a week and it is more likely that I finish a book every ten days. That's about six to eight books every two months. Given my reading group schedule, that means that sometimes half of the books I read in a two month period are chosen by someone other than me.

I find that I'm beginning to resent that.

What's odd about this is that I haven't, in general, disliked the books that have been chosen for my reading groups. Part of the point of being in a reading group, I think, is to expose yourself to books that you wouldn't automatically choose to read. I've enjoyed a great many of the books that have been chosen over the last year.

I think it's just the point that someone else is choosing them. Silly isn't it? But, there it is.

More and more I find that I want to read what I want to read when I want to read it. I find myself resentful when I have to put down a book I am reading so that I can read the reading group book on time. I find myself resentful when I can't start a book I really want to read because I have to, instead, read the reading group book. I find myself resentful when, after making what I consider these sacrifices, I show up to find that others didn't even bother to begin the book much less finish it. And I find myself resentful when the group spends as much, if not more, time talking about anything BUT the book than the book itself.

So I am considering that it is time to take a break. I find it an exciting idea.

It is exciting to think I'll have the freedom to read a brand new book right when it comes out because it has caught my attention in a review. It is exciting to think that I could turn around and re-read a book immediately after I finish it, as I used to do all the time. (I wanted to do that with Stone's Fall, and I'm still going to re-read it. But I just couldn't do it immediately because of other commitments.) It is exciting to think that I could commit myself to finishing a really long book in a reasonably short period of time. There is no way it should have taken me nine months to finish Anna Karenina. It is exciting to think that I could read a series of books and think about them all at once without reading any books in between. I'm still trying to re-read A Whistling Woman to finish the Byatt series I started at the beginning of the year. (And I want to do it before her next novel is published in the US next month.)

Of course, if I did take a break I would be losing something too. I would lose the chance to discover that I really like a book I didn't think I was interested in reading. I would also lose the chance to talk about books with other people who are reading the same book.

But I think a year of freedom would outweigh those detriments. OK, so I would miss a few books. Oh well. The world is full of books. And as for the discussion, I've found over the last few years that the things that interest me about a novel don't tend to be the things that interest most of the people in my groups. (That is a gross generalization, but I think it is true as a generalization)

The thing is, when I like a novel I really like to think about why I like it and I'd love to have a discussion that caused me to think about things I might not have noticed - especially things that don't have to do with plot and a reader's emotional reaction to a character. I'd like to discover, in conversation, how a writer manipulated language to evoke a reaction from the reader. I'd like to discuss the structure of the novel and why the author wouldn't have used an alternate structure to achieve the same effect. I'd like to discuss what the idea is behind the novel, what the author is trying to accomplish other than telling a specific story.

I think about these things quite a bit when I read. But I'm not trained to think about it. As I've said before, the last class I had in English literature that was taught by someone in an English department was when I was a freshman in college in 1978. (I did take a Law and Literature class in law school that I really enjoyed. Of course it focused exclusively on legal themes in the chosen novels, some of which weren't immediately apparent.)

So, I think about these things but I find it hard to really get my head around them and to articulate ideas about them. It would be wonderful to have a real discussion about it with other live human beings. But that doesn't seem to be the direction that most people want to go in.

What it comes down to is that I just don't think I'd really be losing a lot by not having discussions about books I didn't want to read in the first place - at least, not the type of discussion that usually ensues.

So I'm contemplating a break to do independent reading. And the only thing that I would regret about that decision is that I really like all the people in both of my reading groups and I would miss seeing them on a regularly scheduled basis.