Ear­li­er this week, Bar­bara Stark-Nemon wrote about writ­ing visu­al arts into lit­er­a­ture and how her fam­i­ly chose to remem­ber Ger­many after World War II. She is the author of the recent­ly pub­lished nov­el Even in Dark­ness. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Let’s talk about book clubs. I belong to two. I became part of the first one at the invi­ta­tion of a neigh­bor, who is not only one of the best read­ers I know, but hap­pi­ly, one of the best peo­ple I know. He told me this book club had been in exis­tence for many years and con­sist­ed of a core group of men and women with occa­sion­al tem­po­rary members. 

Book selec­tions for the club are lim­it­ed to nov­els that have already come out in paper­back. There is no mod­er­a­tor. This group con­sists large­ly of lawyers whose pol­i­tics lean left. Two of the dozen mem­bers are prac­tic­ing Jews. These lawyers read books. Lots of books. After join­ing the group, I real­ized that I would be read­ing many books that I would nev­er read on my own. I liked some, didn’t like oth­ers, or had mixed feel­ings. The books were drawn heav­i­ly from Book­er Prize lists, NY Times reviews, and refer­rals from oth­er readers. 

As I was begin­ning to shift my own career toward full-time writ­ing, I thought it was impor­tant to read out­side my com­fort zone, which I’d hap­pi­ly inhab­it­ed with authors of lit­er­ary fic­tion and the occa­sion­al his­tor­i­cal nov­el. Enter, sharp edgy humorists, pes­simistic polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors, cross-cul­tur­al and inter­na­tion­al observers, region­al writ­ers, and myth­mak­ers. Often a mem­ber researched a book’s his­tor­i­cal and lit­er­ary con­text, and report­ed to the group. The con­ver­sa­tion was always engaging.

The occa­sion­al hard work of fin­ish­ing well-writ­ten books I didn’t much like, and then defend­ing my judg­ments, was and is good work, but I yearned to read and dis­cuss more of the books I enjoy most. So five years ago, I joined a sec­ond book club. 

This group con­sists exclu­sive­ly of pro­fes­sion­al Jew­ish women, per­haps half of whom are lawyers. (What is it with me and book-crazy lawyers?) I almost always enjoy read­ing their select­ed books — heavy on the lit­er­ary fic­tion, most­ly con­tem­po­rary, but some­times his­tor­i­cal. One per­son is assigned respon­si­bil­i­ty for pre­sent­ing back­ground about the book at each meet­ing, and then mod­er­at­ing the dis­cus­sion. It’s a more for­mal struc­ture than the oth­er group’s, but seems to result in an equal­ly live­ly inter­ac­tion. There is more con­sen­sus among group mem­bers, but also more explo­ration of char­ac­ters and the­mat­ic ele­ments of books discussed. 

One week, my orig­i­nal book club dis­cussed a recent best-sell­ing his­tor­i­cal nov­el by a well-known author. The dis­cus­sion was spir­it­ed, with half the mem­bers (includ­ing all the men) insist­ing the book was less engag­ing than promised, and too drawn out with clichéd char­ac­ters. The charge of clas­sic women’s fic­tion” was lev­eled. A vocal minor­i­ty argued that the book was engag­ing, well writ­ten, and deft­ly descrip­tive of the racial, gen­der and polit­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions from which the char­ac­ters had to break free. 

In a rev­e­la­to­ry sum­ma­tion, the book’s harsh­est crit­ic assert­ed that he want­ed the club to read books he wouldn’t read on his own, per­haps because they were too long, too chal­leng­ing or unlike­ly to imme­di­ate­ly draw him. Yet he still want­ed them to be sub­stan­tive and com­plex enough to occa­sion good dis­cus­sion. He want­ed the books to dis­com­fit him and to teach him. He thought that evening’s book was too sim­ple to meet these cri­te­ria. I dis­agreed, but was fas­ci­nat­ed at how dif­fer­ent his per­spec­tive was from mine. 

The very same month, my all-women’s book club read the same book, and thought it was a fine con­ver­sion of real his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters and events into an instruc­tive, well-writ­ten, and engag­ing nov­el. The group derived inspi­ra­tion from read­ing about the char­ac­ters’ resilience, endurance, and vic­to­ry over vio­lence, intol­er­ance, and phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al suf­fer­ing. This was a time­ly les­son for me as an author – the same book, very dif­fer­ent reac­tions. It helped me remem­ber that read­ers come to the book for all dif­fer­ent rea­sons, a good notion to keep in mind on the eve of a book release. 

And, it’s why I’m in two book clubs.

Every sto­ry needs a nar­ra­tor, and Bar­bara Stark-Nemon stepped up ear­ly in life. She learned a fas­ci­na­tion with the mag­ic of lan­guage from her sto­ry­telling grand­fa­ther. An under­grad­u­ate degree in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture and art his­to­ry and a master’s degree in speech-lan­guage pathol­o­gy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, uni­ver­si­ties, and hos­pi­tals. As a teacher and speech-lan­guage ther­a­pist, Bar­bara spe­cial­ized in child lan­guage dis­or­der and deaf­ness; every­where, there were sto­ries, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes nov­els and fam­i­ly his­to­ries while gar­den­ing, cycling, and cre­at­ing fiber art in Ann Arbor and North­port, Michigan.

Relat­ed Content:

Bar­bara Stark-Nemon learned the mag­ic of lan­guage from her sto­ry­telling grand­fa­ther. She stud­ied Eng­lish, Art His­to­ry, and Speech-lan­guage ther­a­py at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, lead­ing to a career work­ing with chil­dren. Bar­bara writes, gar­dens, swims, and cycles with her fam­i­ly in Ann Arbor and North­port, MI.