Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015
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What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

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My name is Erin Balser and I have a confession: I am a terrible book-club member. Don’t ask me to join. And if you do, don’t expect me to read the book or contribute anything beyond increasing both the drunkenness and the decibel level. Yet, I wouldn’t miss these regular meetings for the world. They’re brash and boozy, but articulate and insightful. Some of the smartest, funniest, coolest people I know are in my book clubs, and I love seeing them on a semi-regular basis. So why do these awesome people require books as a catalyst for socialization and communication? Why can’t we all get together, drink wine and gossip about everyone we know without the façade of a lofty literary discussion? Isn’t that what book clubs are really about anyways?

Don’t get me wrong, I think books are awesome. I think people who read books regularly are awesome. I believe reading books makes people smarter. Books open us to new ideas, challenge our conventions and ask difficult questions. I love that people talk about books and think more people should. I’d go so far to argue that everyone should belong to a book club. Being able to dissect ideas with other interested parties enhances not only the original reading experience, but also the relationship one has with their fellow readers. Book clubs also broaden our reading horizons. Was everyone reading 500-page misery-filled sagas before Oprah came along? Probably not. But, for better or for worse, they are now. Everyone I talked to agreed that exposure to new titles was one of the biggest benefits of belonging to a book club. Take Julie Forrest, the blogger behind Read Play Blog. She’s a member of two book clubs, one being a group of moms who craved something greater than mommyhood to bring them together. “We're a bunch of friends who met through the blogs we all started a few years ago when we started to have children. We all like to read, and we love to get together and drink wine on a regular basis, so a book club was a natural progression,” she explained. The result? She gets exposed to loads of great new reads and interesting new ideas all while hanging out with some of her closest friends. “Every month I am inspired, entertained and educated by fabulous women. I'm introduced to books I would never read on my own.”

A lot can be learned from a person when they introduce you to a new read you’d never consider yourself, when you discover what their favorite book is or uncover that they can’t stand a recent beloved book of your own. What does it mean if you thought the main male character was tall, dark, handsome and mysterious and your book club friend thought he was a slimy skeezeball? It’s engaging, enlightening and completely debate-worthy. Kimberly Walsh, associate producer of the CBC Book Club, agrees. “With books, you invest not just time but your own creative energy to transport yourself into an author's invention of reality. With that investment comes a draw to get a return on it, compare notes, hear what others think or feel about a book.”

However, reading takes a lot of time and is a lot of work. Book clubs reward this by acknowledging reading efforts and encouraging readers to get as much out the experience as possible. Simply put, having reading buddies, like having workout buddies, makes reading easier to do and amps up the guilt factor when it doesn’t get done. If ten other people know you should read a book, you’re probably going to do it. Guilty pleasure reads are easy to do alone. They are like eating ice cream for breakfast. The pleasure comes from no one knowing what you’re doing. But a dense literary tome? Most people need support to get through it and need a watchdog to call them out if they don’t finish. (This happens to me at least once a month.) Julie Forrest agrees. Having an eagle-eyed group encourages her fellow book clubbers to make time for themselves and actually get the reading done. “[A] downside of parenthood is the big reduction in reading time. This way, we make a real effort to finish at least one book per month (for some of us, that is all there is time for),” she says. We live busy, crazy lives with children, jobs, houses, travel, television, food and the Internet all competing for our attention. When we grant a book several hours of our day, week or month, we’re making an investment we want a return on, and we like our books to do double duty, whether it’s to prop open a door or encourage a get-together with friends.

Despite how busy and distracted we all are (I checked my email no less than 76 times while writing this), we are more connected than we’ve ever been. In today’s fast-paced, disjointed world, where you can go months without seeing your friends but still talk to them everyday, work from home but still be part of in-office meetings, talk about who wore what at the Emmys with millions of other people on Twitter and use your smart phone to videoconference, books, like Mad Men’s third-straight Emmy win or Lindsay Lohan’s arrest, bring us together and give us something to talk about. We live in a culture in which we need to know what everyone is doing and what everyone this thinking. It’s no longer satisfying to watch Dancing with the Stars without taking to Twitter to express your shock about the elimination or grabbing take-out without checking into 4Square. These products, services and events are communal cultural touchstones, and books are no exception. There are Twitter hashtags (#fridayreads) devoted simply to announcing what people are reading. This information is as valuable as it is fascinating, but our desire to know these things says as much about us as it does about those making these announcements. It’s not unlike using social media to judge Angelina’s latest adoption or Michelle Obama’s latest fashion choice. We live in a need-to-know culture and that includes the reading habits of others. We are social beings. We need stuff to talk about. We need gossip, we need to dissect the going-ons in the world. Whether they're in your local neighborhood, Hollywood or in the fictional universe created by an author is completely up to you.

Yet, despite the Big Brother bonus book clubs give us, books are associated with intelligence. By caring about books and talking about books and not The Biggest Loser, we are insinuating that we are smart, cultured, articulate people. This may be true (I know I like to think so). Not everyone identifies as a reader or wants to be one. And that’s cool. Being a reader doesn’t make us inherently better, it just moves us to a different social circle and gives us a different social object around which to rotate. It also gives us an excuse to get down and dirty with our pop culture explorations. By creating an environment where people are getting together to discuss something culturally lofty, it’s more acceptable when the conversation degenerates to gossip about celebrities (or friends or coworkers). The original goal — talking about a work of literature — creates a bubble around the group, and, as a result, such lapses in conversation can be forgiven. It’s also easy to blame the wine. (Wine is a must at book clubs.) But the end result can be so much greater than deciding why the narrative worked or didn’t or whether the protagonist is misunderstood or simply an asshole. “Books are why we get together,” Keepin’ It Real Book Club blogger (and my regular partner in literary crime) Jennifer Knoch says. “But the conversation goes so far above and beyond that. Sometimes it’s low-brow and gossipy, but sometimes it’s challenging and insightful too. That’s what I love about KIRBC. It brings together people who are passionate about books but creates an environment where they can connect on many more levels.”

In the end, isn’t that what matters most? It’s awesome when books are the object of choice (and books offer up so much by way of analysis and conversation), but book clubs aren’t simply about “getting” the book. They’re about connecting with people and having inspiring people to think outside-the-box. If we just wanted to gossip, we’d do that. But people want to learn. They want to read. They want to be challenged. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in a book club. But sometimes learning and reading and constantly thinking about our shifting cultural paradigm is hard work. So it’s okay if you go off-topic. It’s possible to get just as much out of discussing an episode of America’s Next Top Model as you can out of discussing a book. The surrounding conversation is what matters. No revelations are going to come out of debating how attractive Nigel Barker is, but sometimes conversations just need to go there. But the conversation could easily shift to dissecting the intersection of beauty and fame and how this intersection has moved thanks to the advent of reality television – that’s a conversation worth having. The same goes for books. Sometimes a book club just wants to beat the Team Edward/Team Jacob dichotomy to death. But it’s possible that that same book club will use this friendship-ending divide to understand how Twilight is changing young girls’ expectations in relationships, that both Edward and Jacob represent dangerous alternatives to Lloyd Dobler and what this means for young girls entering their first romances, which is a valuable and difficult discussion.

So, what do we talk about when we talk about books? Absolutely everything.

And that’s okay.

Erin Balser

Erin Balser is a freelance writer and editor, currently roaming the halls at CBC as an associate producer for Canada Reads and the CBC Book Club. When she's not stalking CBC personalities, you can find her Twittering at @booksin140 or writing about Glee somewhere online. Her first book, Don't Stop Believin': The Unofficial Guide to Glee was published by ECW Press in September 2010.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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