With a jug of hot coffee, paper cups, and a book in hand, my wife is off to her weekly women’s book group. That’s right, weekly. The group meets seven consecutive weeks in the fall, in the winter, and in the spring, taking a long summer break to allow the members to hike the Cascade Mountains. Each year a few of those hiking women are now leaving the group. Founders of the book group thirty-five years ago, they lived into their eighties, experienced the vicissitudes of three American decades, survived the deaths of their husbands, and read a great many books. My wife is keeper of a spreadsheet that lists books the group has read since the mid-1970s. The sheet has 850 lines.
The reading group being a social animal, a jug of coffee is its good friend. Too much is made of reading as the purpose of a book group (remember to “conscientiously separate the socializing from the discussion, ” warns a book on leading groups.) Often one or more members of my groups have not completed the scheduled reading. My readers have busy lives. According to some book club gurus, members who don’t keep up with scheduled readings should be asked to leave. Silence is also to be eliminated. I once had a group member ( I can't say "participant") who sat through six sessions on Swann’s Way and another six on Moby-Dick without saying a word. A woman who has followed me though several groups over four years rarely speaks. The veteran book group leader would have me think I failed for not “having drawn out” the silent attendee. I say, let all who want to attend come. The jug of coffee is the book group’s friend.
It is true that a group moderator must occasionally redirect a discussion that seems to be irritating the group (making sure the discussion is not irritating only the moderator). Several years ago the founder of a book group wrote to Slate’s etiquette expert, Prudence, complaining of a bully who “sighs loudly and makes faces at the suggestions other members make. Then, when we select the book, she will say things like "Well, that's not the book I would have chosen." The bully like to “ ‘play devil's advocate’ and argue for argument's sake.” Prudence recommended having coffee with the bully to inform her of the group’s “unwritten rules of civility.” Luckily, I have not needed to arrange a meeting over coffee. But the extended digression and the interesting side-topic are inevitable, even in the most cohesive groups.
I do not mean to play down the importance of reading. Sophisticated readers who have a developed a deep sense of the English literary tradition compose my book groups. Like them, I have spent much of life reading. Unlike many, I also spent years of professional training to learn and critically evaluate literature, and have directed a good chunk of energy to using the information and experience of acquiring it to teach others how to do the same. We all are avid readers.
My friend The English Teacher is devoting himself to teaching reading to high school students, enormously difficult as he is working with teenagers to whom English is their second language. Your time couldn’t be better spent than reading his wide-ranging, thoughtful essays, whether they explore the problem of teaching reading to the gap or comment on Hamlet or remark on the value of “incompetent reading.” He helps students learn to read at a rudimentary level, knowing that skill may lead to more satisfying forms of reading. I hope to help others further enrich their already sophisticated reading. Perhaps my comparison is an erroneous. Still, to lead a group through a discussion of a book is not to teach, whatever permutations one wishes to assign to teaching. In an essay on “The Decline of the English Department”, William C. Chace writes of a time when
We began to see, as we had not before, how … books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.
Part, a large part, of getting to know a literary tradition and a historical tradition requires a rigorous approach to reading that book groups don’t admit. The goal of the fellowship I received in graduate school was to send me into the world to teach, to help others understand the traditions that inform our literature. On second thought, I hardly believe I am doing so. No, I go off with the jug of coffee to my book groups so I can participate in genial literary discussions, happily.