When I was first asked to take over LPL’s Speculative Fiction Book Club, I had my doubts that it would be something I would be good at and/or enjoy. I’d never even participated in a book club before, much less hosted one. I’ve always understood at least part of the allure (mainly imposing my opinions about stuff I read onto others), but there has been just one glaring problem: Having books picked for me. I am a reader of habit. I have a system of book hunting that has been carefully crafted over many years, and resulted in the consumption of many great books. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it, and I had enough of assigned reading after being forced to endure Great Expectations, thank you very much.
Sound familiar? It likely does, because according to a study done by BookBrowse, the leading reason folks cite for not being interested in joining a book club is they don’t want to have to read a book they didn’t choose themselves.
That was most definitely me. The first book for SFBC when I was handed the reins was Sourdough by Robin Sloan. I read the back cover (one step in my time tested and proven method of choosing my next read) and groaned inwardly because it was clearly a modern novel (when I prefer historical, fantastical, or futuristic), about a woman who was neck deep in the world of technological drudgery until a chance adoption of some sort of sentient bread ingredient changes the course of her life. I'm sorry but ... what?
Too contemporary, too bizarre, not my cup of tea, etc. Lo and behold, this book charmed my socks off, provided the club with lots of interesting things to discuss, and ultimately went down as one of my very favorite reads of 2018.
I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, nice anecdotal evidence you’ve got there, Leah!” But hear me out. After this dark horse favorite from my book club experience repeating itself multiple times, I’m on my way to being fully convinced that for most of us, required reading in our formative years is a big factor in our reluctance to relinquish control of our reading as adults. I know that in my schools our reading material was chosen with the upmost care and the best of intentions. And to the credit of required reading, I never would have known how much I love dingy dystopias if I hadn’t read Lord of the Flies, or how much I hate didactic narratives if I hadn’t read any Charles Dickens.
However, with the clear links between reading and success, as well as sobering statistics about declining readership in adults, there is a growing push among educators in the United States to either scrap the teacher selected materials altogether, or at the very least introduce a curriculum that gives children ownership and autonomy as readers. You know, that they will have as adults. To which I say HOORAY.
But if I’m right, those among us who came out of our educational experience with our love of reading unscathed have nothing more to fear from “required” or “suggested” reading such as in book clubs, or even recommendations from family and friends. Our taste in everything from genre to POV is well established, and we also (hopefully) have the wisdom to know that life is too short to read things we don’t like, that we can always just put a book down if it’s not grabbing us. Reading fiction is inherently an adventure, and we are always free to discriminate, but most importantly to explore.
But is that really what we're doing if we're not taking chances on books? If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 30 years of dedicated consumption of fiction, it’s that our taste is ever evolving, as is the rich world of literature. And I now strongly believe it would behoove all of us to be in a, not constant, but consistent state of experimentation with our reading choices.
It may or may not surprise you to learn that based on that same BookBrowse study, 91% of book club participants cited this as one of the greatest values of their book club membership: Reading and enjoying books they may not have given the time to otherwise. One could argue that this merely points to two distinct types of readers, ones who would participate in a book club to get that value in the first place and ones who wouldn't. That's fair, but I know there are some converts in there. Because I'm one of them.
So I challenge you, voracious reader, to take that step if it isn't already a part of your reading routine. Invite this kind of multi-layered adventure into your reading life. Whether this means purposefully choosing books outside of your usual preferred genres, authors, etc., OR making a conscious decision and concerted effort to read books recommended to you by friends, OR discovering the many benefits of joining a book club. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
-Leah Newton is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.