Monday, August 14, 2006

The Difficulties of Choosing a Book

I belong to a very opinionated book club where it is virtually impossible to please everyone. I consider myself successful if even half of the other 12 people like the book I choose.

My husband probably gives more thought to his choice than anyone else in the group, always hoping for unanimous approval. The only rule for the selecting person is that you must have read the book, after we were burned a few times by people recommending books with good reviews that really sucked when you read them (like The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal). So he always reads several books before making a recommendation. He reads reviews. He is always convinced that his latest choice will be the one that finally meets with a room of nods.

Last night he led the discussion on "The World to Come" by Dana Horn. I absolutely loved this book that reads like a Yiddish folk tale. But unfortunately 4 people in the group vociferously panned it, not even letting him get through the brief bio of the author before talking about what they disliked. I could see his ego getting wounded as he took on a rather defensive attitude during the discussion. It turned out that there were an equal number of those of us who liked the book a lot, a couple of ambivalents, and one who probably never read the book at all. My husband and I talked about it after the meeting and I reiterated the importance of believing in a book yourself and saying to hell with the rest of them. But for a person who made all As and who likes to please his audience, that is not good enough. He now has somewhat over a year to come up with his next choice.

There are many ways to go about choosing a book. You can pick a classic, like Wallace Stegner’s Sacred Hunger, that has been shown millions of times to be a crowd pleaser. Or you can turn to Oprah’s list or Border’s list or another list of current favorites. Or you can just go with your gut feeling, knowing that it will probably not match a couple of other gut feelings.

My selections have never come close to pleasing the entire group. Since we started this book club in 1997, I have recommended:

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok
The Magus by John Fowles
The Narrows by Ann Petry
The Special Prisoner by Jim Lehrer
Fool's Crow by James Welch
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
Mutual Life and Casualty by Liz Poliner
The History of Love by Nicole Kraus (for October 2006)

After last night’s comments, I can predict that the same people are going to hate my October pick. But oh well...

The beauty of a book club of diverse people is that the discussion never ends with the single sentence, "It was a great read." It’s that curious interplay of the positive and the negative that makes me read the next book. This is freedom of speech at its finest.


Blogger Kristin said...

I love my book clubs because we don't agree. It's amazing how differently books can strike people. Then, again, maybe it isn't.

Sometimes, I just have to be in the mood for a particular book. It took me four years to read "Love in the Time of Cholera," which I adored but didn't pick up once I put it down. It took four false starts before I read "East of Eden." Seems I cannot even agree with myself on a book.

I did love "The History of Love," though, and have recommended it to others. I haven't heard back as to whether or not any of them liked it.

11:24 AM  
Blogger Pagan Marbury said...

I know what you mean, Kristin. Some of my favorite books took me more than a year to read- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanence, The Fountainhead and Confederacy of Dunces come to mind. I never finished The Corrections because I lost the book, but I was loving it up to that point.

Thanks for the good book recommendations, Barbara. I am currently reading Wicked and I can't put it down.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin -- I savored every word of Love in the Time of Cholera. I consider Gabriel Garcia Marquez to be one of the best writers of all time. His work is equally beautiful in both English and Spanish. I struggled through at least several chapters of Cien Anos de Soledad. I'm glad to hear you liked The History of Love. With so many of these books, I think the secret is getting into the mindset of the author.

Pagan -- My son recommended The Confederacy of Dunces to me. I have never heard him laugh so much reading a book. I loved and hated it at the same time when I read it. Then my husband recommended it for the book club and I read it again. It was the second time when I saw the true genius of John Kennedy Toole, an author who died before his (only?) book was ever known. I'll have to try Wicked.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

No wonder I love David so much. He's right to rise to the challenge of choosing a book the whole group can get involved in. That's genuinely democratic.

8:27 PM  
Anonymous John said...

Granted, it's easy for me to say while not being in the throws of it, but it offhand It seems like a great sign that your group cares enough to have strong opinions--whatever their ilk--about the reads and are comfortable talking about their disagreements on the books.

12:23 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reya -- David's goals are always lofty, occasionally unattainable!

John -- I quite agree with you. As long as the controversy is directed at the book and not at the one who chose it, it makes the discussion richer. Much to my husband's surprise, he received several comments yesterday (even from a naysayer) about how interesting the interchange on "The World to Come" was. We all like each other a lot. We just come at things from different perspectives.

9:01 AM  

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