Last month, inspired by a chapter in Shauna Niequist’s Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way, my book club shared things we don’t do. There was a triumphant gleefulness in the way we declared ourselves free of the things that make our lives heavy: Megan doesn’t watch scary movies. Ever. Colleen does not read science fiction or fantasy–do not try and talk about Tolkien with this woman. Seriously.
I don’t do diaries. I don’t do journals, either. During the years before I learned this about myself, I purchased some truly lovely blank books with the intent to fill them faithfully. Each journal, dutifully begun, accrued only a handful of entries. I am introspective to the nth degree, but I was never able to make daily journaling a habit. Re-reading various attempts has prejudiced me against further action. Free-writing, I’ve discovered, finds me maudlin, and I have no desire to revisit the worst version of a particular moment. Better by far that I should forget and smile than remember and be sad.
Last week a member of my book club asked me if I’d liked the book we read last month. “Well, I certainly don’t think I would be friends with the author,” I found myself telling her. I think my friend understood what I was trying to say: the book had been okay, but I probably wouldn’t read it again, and I didn’t feel the kind of connection with the author that I had expected to.
Book club books.
Later, I began to think about the assessment I had offered. Given the amount of time and effort I have spent learning how to talk and write about books, the assessment was uncharacteristic. I was just as prepared to tell my friend that the book’s narrative structure didn’t quite work for me, or that I found the narrator (it was a memoir) unreliable. Instead of telling her what I thought, however, I told her how I felt. The former is what you do in graduate school; the latter is what you learn not to do in graduate school. If you absolutely must tell someone that you loved a book or an article, make it a peer and not a professor. Or at least be prepared to cite page numbers and passages.
When I started thinking about the dichotomy of evaluation–what I think versus how I feel–I was surprised that I had neither considered it, nor the circumstances that dictate the particular way I read and respond to a book, before. Whether I’m reading an academic tome or a novel, as an assignment or for pleasure, I read in very much the same manner: actively. Books read or re-read after a certain point in my life inevitably bear scribbles in the margins, page corners turned down, and hastily stuck Post-it notes. The book in question had all of the above. Despite considering it an assignment (book club books are chosen for me, and I am expected–in my current book club, at least–to have completed the reading and have something to say about it) and thus worthy of my well-trained discernment, I instead declared the author unfriendable.
It must have been sitting down with a group of like-minded women whose company I enjoy. It must have been the snacks. It must have been the wine. Yet all of these factors have figured prominently in highly enjoyable discussions I’ve shared with fellow academics, too. Maybe it was these particular friends. Maybe I’ve always secretly yearned to be friends with the authors I read. Maybe I just felt comfortable.