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A Shared Experience: Crystal Bridges Book Clubs

Jim Everett

Jim Everett

Jim Everett

Jim Everett is Crystal Bridges’ Assistant Reference Librarian.

I received a nice bonus to my new job as Assistant Reference Librarian when given the opportunity to lead the Boundless Book Club. I have now led a couple of the club meetings and am starting to get a feel for what makes for a successful evening. I am new to this; I had never read a book with a group before. When it comes to reading, I’m a bit of a loner. And, to be truthful, a lot of what I read may not be of interest to most others. Suzanne, my predecessor at the library, calls me “highbrow.” I remember as a child asking my mother why Adlai Stevenson lost the presidential election. She said: “He’s an egghead.” She looked at me for a long, unsmiling moment and said, “You’re an egghead.”

To give an example: My favorite author is Marcel Proust. I write a blog devoted to his novel, ProustReader, as well as one about another favorite, the Austrian writer Robert Musil. (I will be giving an Art Book Club presentation on Proust and Painting on March 9th.) That’s not to say I dwell only in such lofty realms. In the last year I’ve enthusiastically read Hillary Mantel’s novels on Cromwell and several Iris Murdoch novels. And I read a lot of non-fiction: science, history, philosophy.

My first Boundless experience was an accident. Some people started showing up one Wednesday night asking about where the book club was being held. I was not aware that it was meeting that night and the regular leader could not make it. I took a few minutes to look something up about the author on Wikipedia and gamely chaired the meeting. There were ten of us that night and we had a wonderful discussion about the book and more generally about nineteenth-century religious life in America and much else. It helped my self-confidence that only two of the attendees had actually read the assigned book.

I was better prepared for the next meeting. Three persons came (they had been at the above-mentioned meeting also – the beginning of a loyal membership!). We had a delightful time talking about Nella Larsen’s Passing. I learned a lot about just what a book club can be that night. Since we had all read the work fairly closely, we could talk easily about all the characters, talk as if we knew them, as if we had heard the story first hand from an eyewitness to the events. Larsen is a good enough writer that we could talk freely in this fashion, as people do about other real people. We debated various characters’ motivations and beliefs. We argued over the somewhat ambiguous ending: Who did it? And we were alert to passages that diminished our belief in the reality of the characters. I became a better reader that night.

Between MealsThe next two meetings of the club will still be reading selections chosen by my predecessor. But beginning in January the selections will be mine. My first one will be a memoir, A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. The author, like me, squandered a lot of young-adult years in Paris and every page of his book is stuffed with memorable people and accounts of his education as a world-class “feeder.” The next book is something of a gamble. People don’t read poetry on a regular basis anymore (me included). But Wislawa Szymborka’s poetry is so simple and direct and so very moving, I wanted to take a chance. We will read her volume titled View with a Grain of Sand. She also wrote one of the shortest and most moving accounts on 9/11, a poem titled “Photograph from September 11.”

After that we will return to novels. I don’t have any idea which, but I know I will have become a better reader by then. Better because we club members will have tested each book along the way for its truthfulness about the real world.

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