Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reading for the head and soul

Book club members know that discussing a book introduces new questions and ideas about life. Reading, and writing, are a means of escape, education, emotional change.
The same process occurs within writing groups. I belong to one at the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster (now expanded to two groups). As we discuss each other's writing for the day, interpretations are often varied; layers in the writing unleash different emotions and memories among the listeners.
That's the way it is with reading, guaranteeing that book group discussions will always be varied. And that's a good thing.
We love books in different ways. Witness some favorites:
"East of Eden" called to me not so much because of its story line - an errant wife, overbearing father, brothers at odds and competing for love. Steinbeck played them so well against each other and drew each of them so intimately that motives and painful regrets became clear in each of these complex people.
"The Great Gatsby," describing a social class known to Fitzgerald but removed from high school lives, means much more today - both for its simple clarity and an adult's ability to understand the actions and failures of Gatsby and Daisy so much more intimately.
In Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible," one must absorb thousands of words dealing with the everyday evolution of a missionary family's experience in the jungle wilderness to reach the real core, an unfolding insanity that imprisons the family in an autocratic father's misguided missionary zeal - until they can no longer bear it, and must escape their losses.
Many of us first knew the values of strong character, loyalty, and familial love through the characters of Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem in Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird." One remembers its lessons about racial prejudice, childlike innocence and inquiry, and a father's dedication to doing what's right while teaching his children to do the same.
Book groupers seldom agree on motivations and quality, because each brings to the discussion a different preference for writing style, drama, characterization, subject matter. We read in order to be moved.
I am deeply interested in character development within a well-told story. Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance" was beyond my knowledge of Indira Gandhi's Indian "democracy", but it defined the annihilation attempts on India's outcasts, through a small set of characters whose lives are bled by India's political and social climate, and whose friendship turns to loving support and protection, despite class differences. I consider it great literature, but some of my fellow club members could not get through the book, putting it down because of its dark reality, its size, its painstaking portrayal of the time and place where these characters lived.
Book selection, then, becomes an exercise in compromise, resulting in our exposure to others' valued books.
We read selections we might never have chosen otherwise, and learn about new authors. As generations of writers emerge, new styles and concerns join the literature of the day. T.C. Boyle writes simply and affectingly of illegal immigrants and their interactions with California's affluent class, which hires - and exploits - them without regard for impact in "The Tortilla Curtain." Andre Dubus III stages the conflict between poor white and affluent immigrant in "The House of Sand and Fog." Dave Eggers draws the curtain open on New Orleans in Katrina's wake, in the staggering, non-fictional "Zeitoun." Jenna Blum portrays the life of a woman forced to become a German collaborator in "Those Who Save Us." Massachusetts resident Daniel Bruce Brown takes a zany but politically astute look at the first Jewish presidency (and the 51st state of Israel) in the new, humorous "Roll Over, Hitler."
In "The Glass Castle," journalist Jeannette Walls swallows us up in the jaw-dropping story of her childhood among loving but disastrously inattentive, indigent hippie parents. We experience the thoughts and actions of an autistic teenager through the ringing truth of Mark Haddon's novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night."
There are so many examples. Without literature, our experiences are too limited for a complex, expanding globe. We roam the world, explore unfamiliar emotions and enter the lives of people or characters we might never otherwise know.
And that's the joy of book club membership, sharing lives, opinions and laughter around a table set with new books and good food.

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