The Ecstasy of a Book Club
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” —JC
There is the possibility of ecstasy in a book club—this I aver.
It’s a religious thing—or should be—the intercourse among “people of the book” (or rather, “people of many books,” people of infinite books…). It’s something reckless, an anachronistic act of abandon, to read literature—real literature, the work of words that imperfect human beings across time and space have poured their lives into—and to then talk about it with others, to experience a state of communion on its basis. I maintain this is a radical act.
A book club must be an ecstatic thing, or why bother?
I do not belong to a book club merely for “the pleasure of reading,” nor to socialize superficially. I do not read only for pleasure. Of course, I feel pleasure when I read—but I also feel boredom, tiredness, frustration, annoyance; yet I keep reading. I read even when it hurts. I read because there’s more at stake than my personal pleasure. I read because what’s contained in literautre is a reason for being. It’s a way of being. It’s faith. It’s revelation.
And revelation, naturally, wants to be shared, celebrated, spoken in tongues.
When I read—when I’m in the zazen of reading—I am transfigured. There occurs a transubstantiation of paper and light, ink and blood. Word is made flesh and flesh is made spirit—and sometimes (if I’m reading Kafka, for example) spirit is made absurd. I laugh out loud. The absurd is made holy! I realize: the absurd—deep down—is love. And I need this love….
It’s a lonely experience, to read. We are alone, physically; or if we’re surrounded by others, we’re shutting them out by focusing maximum attention on the book at hand. We are alone in our heads. We are, in essence, quietly—and from a certain perspective, crazily—talking to ourselves. But when reading becomes ecstatic, our self-centered aloneness becomes inseparable from other kinds of aloneness:
- an aloneness with the consciousness of the author (a consciousness transmitted, miraculously, via little squiggly lines that our brains turn into sounds, and those sounds into pictures, and those pictures into meanings, which illuminate and haunt our own consciousness)
- an aloneness with imagined characters, with ideas and language
- an aloneness with our fellowship of readers, and potentially with humanity (or trans-humanity, or the universe, or being) itself.
Every layer of aloneness is its own revelation.
The paradox of reading is that our aloneness contains an intimacy—a proximity with otherness, a strange closeness that’s non-local, marked by distance and desire, yet under the skin.
Reading is a social act we do alone. This is why every act of solitary reading feels, in a way, incomplete (or merely passive) until we break the solipsism of our literary intimacies and share the fruits of our reading with others, while partaking of others’ fruits. This allows us, in turn, to read more deeply, to entertain more perspectives, and so a virtuous circle is created between self, text, and other readers.
That’s the beauty of a book club. Our experience of the loneliness of reading can be transformed into a sweeter togetherness. A virtuousness. A hilariousness. A social awakening. We simply need to make this our intention.
In my opinion, the key thing for a book club’s success is not necessarily in the books it reads—the particular authors or genres—but rather in the spirit that guides it, the genius loci, which I think can be characterized by a playful passion for depth. An unserious seriousness. An unbearable lightness of being, even within the darkest dimensions of the human soul that literature reveals. (This is required in addition, of course, to open-mindedness, good taste, mutual respect, and the other social graces one would expect from civilized discourse.)
In fact, I believe there is a misconception about what book clubs are really about. A good book club doesn’t merely talk about books—not in any cliquey or supposedly “literary” kind of way. Of course, on one level, the object of the book is important; its structure, its story, its language, its historical context and figurative meaning—there’s nothing like a deeply informed close reading. But ultimately, the conversation can about anything and everything. This is what I believe literature is really about. An infinity of actual and possible worlds. A phantasmagoria of consciousness without end. It just so happens that certain books, and certain authors, have a way of transfiguring consciousness—disclosing a world, or exploding some aspect of the all into view—which makes the conversations and interactions in a book club particularly revealing, fun, even liberating.
The book club I imagine is distributed, global, diverse. It’s online, but members meet up locally if they can and want to. It’s trans-genre. The criteria for what’s read is fluid, open to inspiration and the cultural moment. It’s experimental. It’s tries new formats and explores new points of contact. It’s interested in evolving.
If there’s a quality that defines a good book pick, it’s simply that the book is worth reading—it has something to say (even if that something is ineffable), and an interesting way of saying it. It’s worth our time and attention. Most importantly, one gets the feeling from such a book that there is the possibility of falling in love. We are lovers of many books. An ecstatic book club is polyamorous.
In the long run, I don’t think everybody in a book club necessarily needs to be reading the same book at the same time. If only two or three people out of the larger group want to read a book, that’s all it takes for the magic to happen. There could be multiple mini-readings going on at the same time. One might be participating in multiple sub-groups, or none at all, at the moment. Every book could have its own timeline and special injunctions (for example, relating to spoilers).
However, I still think there should be a number of larger, “official” group readings during the year (for example, over the summer, tackling a book like Infinite Jest). And I imagine, over time, a book-club-specific canon will emerge, comprising the works that have elicited the widest and deepest engagement from its members.
The coherence and integrity of a book club are maintained by individuals who are part of it—and the energy they put into it. Our aloneness and togetherness simultaneously.
Every consciousness is a world. Every work of art is a world. A book club lives and grows by the collisions and recombinations of worlds upon worlds.