Book Clubs: Where Books and People Matter Most

I first saw author Ann Hood speak about three years ago at a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) distinguished writers’ lecture where she was promoting her book, The Obituary Writer (2013). She said that her novel was about two mothers living in different eras who were both searching for meaning in their lives. One mother was an early twentieth-century obituary writer, seeking to find her missing husband after the famous San Francisco earthquake. Her method was to search for notices of people who died after the calamity and then write clever obituaries about them. This job also helped her to cope with the tragedy of her loss. The modern mother struggled to find meaning in a loveless marriage. Hood weaves the two stories separately and then finds connections between the struggles of the two mothers who lived one-hundred years apart.

In her talk, Ann also mentioned one of her earlier best-sellers, The Knitting Circle (2008), which is about how a group of women who support each other after various losses and struggles. I know about this book because my wife is in a quilters’ group and discussed it with me. What I remember most about Ann’s talk is how her eyes and face sparkled when she spoke about how she loves literature. She told the VCU audience how the Louisa May Alcott’s book, Little Women, had such a big impact on her when she was a girl. Her teacher lent her that book over the weekend. As if she was still grieving the experience, she relayed that she was barely able to function or relate to anyone in school on the following Monday because she read that Beth, one of the March sisters, had died. Using this introduction, Ann spoke about how books can matter in our lives if we can discover our personal connections to them. She concluded that one of the most common questions she is asked is: which books have mattered most to her and influenced her most as an author and a person. Therefore, it was not surprising to me when I discovered that her 2016 book focused on this question and is titled, The Book That Matters Most. This novel is about her lifelong love of the classic books that have mattered the most to her. In her book, she provides two definitions of a classic book: Mark Twain said “it is one that everyone has heard of but no one ever reads.” However, she promotes the alternative definition provided by Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that is never finished saying what it has to say.”

Ann has also discovered that books can become even more meaningful when they are considered in book clubs. Using her values as a guide, Matters is about a group of ten people who try to share their love and understanding of classic literature as they build connections with each other. As in the other books I discussed above, Ann’s 2016 book also focuses on the losses of a mother and daughter, as well as with several other characters who are connected to them. We find that these characters are all suspended in time and living with a lifetime of grief over their common loss. The ten members of the book club choose one book a year and meet each month to discuss the books they selected. Since Ann is the writer, her book club participants all chose classic books to discuss, such as Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Catcher in the Rye, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Slaughterhouse Five. The author tries to connect how the themes of each these books lead to the solutions of the dilemmas of the main characters. Sometimes those connections are a bit of a stretch, but the book was still a fun-read for lovers of classic literature and book clubs.

In promoting The Book that Matters Most, Ann gave several interviews where she spoke of her love for literature and the importance she places in book clubs. In a 6/24/2016 interview in Parade Magazine, she stated that a book club could be a comforting place to get to know others; and through them, readers may find ways to connect with others who are working through similar issues. In her 6/17/2016 interview in Publishers Weekly, she revealed that she lost a brother and a daughter, and that associating with other literature-lovers and book clubs helped to “save her life.”

In the Norton Reader’s Guide (her publisher) to her book, she stated that her experience reading about the characters in Little Women changed her life and influenced her decision to become an author. When she had young children, book clubs helped her to show new social connections and to keep her challenged intellectually. She noted that book clubs also forced her to read books they she would not normally have considered. She also stated that she believed that book clubs are even more important in our age of modern technology and social networking, because they help to connect readers to living communities.  There are as many types of book clubs as reasons for joining them. Ann mentioned that some are theme based, such as classic novels, or books that matters most. However, they can also be based common interests, political beliefs, interests in historical events, or religious issues.

We recently discussed The Book That Matters Most at our first VCU Working Titles Book Club, a group of alumnae, who have common interests. Our members said that they liked talking about books with other members because it relieved them of having to dissect books, mainly to study the scholarly arguments about them. Instead, they were most comfortable with no expert present, and with everyone sharing what the books meant to them..As the facilitator of our first meeting, I shared that I was having physical problems and would need surgery soon for a hip replacement. When I posted the date of my scheduled surgery on our group’s private Facebook page and informed  everyone that I wouldn’t be able to make the March meeting, several people sent me their well-wishes and suggested that I try to be present via Skype. I am very sorry that I will need to, at least physically, miss the next book club because we will be discussing a book that I have found to be a tremendous inspiration to me during my back and hip pain struggles: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Oh, but hopefully I can review that book in my Blog.

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Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature at Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1988. He is married and has three adult  daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He teaches literature classes at the OSHER,Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond; is the organizer and coordinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club; and is co-founder and organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU English Alumni, Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at ellisonms2@vcu.edu

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