My First Book Club Experience

I think one of the side effects of being a lifelong reader, is a certain level of introversion. Or maybe it’s the other way round. At any rate, I tend to avoid highly social settings, and when forced into one I seem to spend a lot of time interacting with the dog and checking out the bookshelves.

But when San Diego Oasis offered a brand-new “literary book club,” promising discussions of famous works of literature, I signed up. Oasis is a local organization offering education and enrichment programs for people 50 and older. My only experience with Oasis had been two classes connecting actual medieval history to Shakespeare, both of which had been canceled due to lack of enrollment. So I was glad to hear that the literary book club was going ahead for its first semester despite being a bit light on registrants.

Books by Austen and the Bronte sisters
The literary book club reading list for the first meeting included these books plus Emma (it’s around here somewhere, along with my old annotated Pride and Prejudice) and Wuthering Heights, which I’ve never read. I’ve also never read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Northanger Abbey; these copies are my mother-in-law’s and my wife’s. Tenant was bought decades ago on a trip to Europe – my wife remembers visiting the Brontë Parsonage as an adolescent. Inside, on a scrap of index card, are my mother-in-law’s character notes.

Including me, there were six participants plus our facilitator, Kim Keeline, who has a Ph.D in English. Only one of us had received the reading list beforehand, but fortunately the opening discussion was about Austen and the Brontës, and centered on Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre, both of which all of us seemed to have read, along with enough of the day’s list to have a spirited discussion. One person defended Mr. Bennet and another spoke out for Mrs. Bennet, which makes me want to go back through the novel and take another look at them.

I seemed to be alone in wishing Jane Eyre had married what-his-name (none of us could remember, not even our facilitator; a quick search turns him up as St. John Rivers, which even now doesn’t ring a bell) instead of pining pathetically for Rochester, who was at best a lecherous employer and would-be adulterer and bigamist. Someone cried out, “but what about passion?” and I could only mumble something along the lines that passion was a good point. But I think the larger issue is that I really wanted decent, hard-working St. John Rivers (as that seems to be his name) to come up a winner. As a regular guy, I wanted the ordinary Joe to get the girl. I feel the same way about Johnny Eames and Lily Dale in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington. But that is not the way of the sweeping 19th century romance.

One person shared a snarky synopsis of Wuthering Heights that was so twisted and gloomy that it actually made me want to read the thing, in the same way James Thurber’s precis of Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove clarified, oh, everything, and made me go back and re-read Dove with a much clearer idea of what was going on. I enjoyed it a lot more after Thurber’s assist. (Thurber, James. “The Wings of Henry James.” Lanterns and Lances, Time-Life Books, 1962, p 80-81.)

Lunch and Homer's The Odyssey
The Emily Wilson translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. I’m just starting to dig in!

Afterwards, I treated myself to Panera and got a half sandwich and half Greek salad, which suited Homer. I’ve been slowly working my through through the introduction of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, and the main act is just about to start. Woo hoo!

In a couple weeks the book club will be doing Mark Twain, with a focus on The Innocents Abroad, which I have not read. I checked it out from the library yesterday afternoon and have been enjoying it.

I’m happy to have joined this group, and am looking forward to the next meeting!

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