I joined a book club five years ago, almost six. We were a ragtag group of expatriates. For our second meeting, we read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I could not tell you now what that book is about. I don’t even remember the character names. I remember reading it in a McDonald's right off the tram line. I was living in Kochi-shi, Japan for about four to five months at that point. I was speed reading; I am a notorious procrastinator. I doubt I was absorbing much, but I was getting through the pages. I remember my junior high school students walking into the McDonald’s. They were surprised to see me. I was also surprised to see them. I was far from my apartment, but they were farther from their fishing village. They were eating McDonald’s before their basketball game. I thought I misunderstood, so I asked again, and yes they were eating McDonald’s before the game and not after. I said my goodbyes — I wasn’t even finished with the book yet. I felt slightly embarrassed reading Kundera in a McDonald’s. I was already the only non-Japanese person in the establishment. I couldn’t be the only non-Japanese person AND be reading Kundera by myself. I left.
Our book club tried to meet every month. The more members of your club, the harder it is to coordinate schedules. One person would be designated as lead for the month — that person would pick the book, meeting date, and location. Usually it was just our respective apartments. Famously, I never attended book club meetings that were not extremely convenient for me. If it was too far from the city or if I had to sleep over, I most likely wouldn’t attend. I’m still the same way now. When I did go, however, it was always a day trip or weekend in a small rural Japanese village. Reading 1984 led to a weekend in Tsuno during their firefly festival. We discussed Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry by the Yoshino River during a trip to Motoyama for a show at Cafe Missy Sippy. Now, I have a hard time remembering which books we read for each meeting — I had to cross reference books and meeting dates with my Goodreads account, Instagram, and the Facebook book club group (thanks Sara for the help!). But, the books were never really the point.
I mean, they were the point, at first at least. We started the book club because we all loved reading and literature in one sense or another. Teaching English in a foreign country can seriously take a toll on your ability to communicate. You find that you use your “teacher voice” unexpectedly on friends, family, or other loved ones. The “teacher voice” is the voice you use with your students who are English language learners. The syntax of your sentences is incredibly simplistic. Conversations become more routine than meaningful. Your response to “how are you?” is “I’m fine. Thank you. And, you?”. Your ideas become less complex as well. You find yourself expressing your worldview with the most common words you can use to ensure you’re being clearly understood. The book club was a great way to break away from all of this. I read at my desk, constantly. Sometimes, there was never enough work to be done, so you’re left trying to “look busy.” You interpret that as you want. I spent most of my hours studying Japanese — copying sentence structures and vocabulary lists thinking it’d help me learn the language. When boredom struck, I’d switch and read. I would shift out of the idea of thinking of language mechanically and move into thinking about how words create meaning and what stories can do for us.
The book club continued my two years in Japan with a new cast of characters coming in the second year. How people think about and talk about books is always interesting. You can tell some have had specific training in reading literature and others just read recreationally. I’m not saying one is better than the other — sometimes I wish I could turn off the critical part of myself and just enjoy things as they are. I love reading. However, I love talking about things that I have read way more. I find that when I read, my thoughts are not fully formed on their own. They’re bolstered and made whole by those around me and come out better through conversation. There’s a thrill in feeling a specific way about a character, event, or novel and finding others that agree with you. It is equally thrilling to find others who disagree with you but are able to fully articulate why.
When I left Japan, I also left the book club. It continued to exist in one form or another for another year without me. I continued to read, but I felt less inclined to finish books in a timely manner and had no one around with whom to discuss and digest those books. I read A Little Life in the dead of winter, an apt choice for the brutal weather and the solitude I felt moving back home while others around me were moving in interesting directions with their lives. Eventually as the season passed and months went by, others had read it as well, and I could begin to articulate all the thoughts and feelings I had about the book. I was transitioning into another stage of my life and set plans to move to Philadelphia. Those who had stayed in Japan for another year began their migration back to America as well.
The book club started up again around the same time I started graduate school. I don’t exactly remember how - I’m sure Sara, or Clancy, or Johanna who are all reading this will let me know. But, it did start up again. We mostly met in New York, as most people either lived there or were within traveling distance. We planned on meeting monthly, but, even though there were only four of us, coordinating was still hard. Whenever I tell people that I’m going to New York for my book club, I am hit with questions and confusion. Why would you travel all the way to New York to talk about a book? I mean, sometimes waiting out in the rain for a MegaBus to come, I’d ask myself the same thing. I traveled the two hour distance between Philadelphia and New York more times than I can remember. I can tell you the exact routes the buses take between the two cities. Megabus and Boltbus travel through Cherry Hill before reaching the main highway to New York. Greyhound takes a different route and avoids Cherry Hill entirely. The Lincoln Tunnel will always have traffic, unless you arrive there before 11 am - but even that’s not guaranteed. Boltbus used to line up next to the Jarvis Center with Megabus but has since moved to across the street from the Jarvis Center almost perpendicular to Megabus. Megabus charges you if you want to change your travel times, but Boltbus will most likely just let you on if you ask nicely. Always make sure to look ahead to see if the 7 train is running. If not, you have to walk a bit to or from Penn Station. That part sucks, trust me.
Graduate school was an endurance test. The work was never difficult, but it was mentally exhausting. I worked non-stop. I worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. I lived where I worked. I was over-involved. Book club always served as an escape. I could put things off. I could physically leave the space. Interpersonal problems? I would just take some breaths and think them through on the bus ride to New York. I could have a few drinks, see familiar faces, and forget about my troubles for at least a day. I could read something that’s fiction. I could read prose that is purposeful and not needlessly complex as those of research papers.
Every book club, we continue to talk about the chosen book, but we also talk about ourselves. We talk about how far we’ve come since Kochi, Japan. We talk about others who were with us. The nostalgia is always heavy in the room. Every meeting I’m reminded of the life I used to live and sharing those stories with people who there keeps them real and alive. Or else, it’d feel like a slowly fading dream. Book club has been a solid foundation to rest on even through all the transitions I have made in my life and I’m thankful for the support I have received. You have to trust your book club. Or else, you’ll end up reading some shitty fucking books.**
I’m hosting the next book club in Philadelphia, and it will most likely be the last one I host here. We’re reading Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man by Thomas Page McBee. Knowing me, I’ll still be reading it and scrambling to finish minutes before everyone is set to arrive.
**for a few months, we read some really shitty fucking books. One was even a Pulitzer Prize winner, and it truly was the worst of them all. Nonetheless, we continued to read and broke the spell and everything is fine now. But, I couldn’t finish this newsletter without talking about how truly shitty some of those fucking books were.
Letters of Recommendation:
In Search of Water-Boiled Fish - Angie Wang
A Battle for My Life - Emilia Clarke
What It’s Like to Grow Up With More Money Than You’ll Ever Spend - Sarah McVeigh
The Day the Dinosaurs Died - Douglas Preston
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