Friday, May 4, 2012

Book Clubs Cometh; or, Hurrah for People Who Like to Read!

Yesterday was a good day for me: I booked my first book club discussion of KEOWEE VALLEY, down in Greenville, South Carolina. Hurrah for the Wednesday Afternoon Book Club!

Granted, this meeting-in-which-my-novel-is-discussed-by-awesome-ladies will not occur until early 2013, but I'm still jacked. The fun is beginning.

And if you, dear reader, would like to read KEOWEE VALLEY in your book club, and have me there to talk to on the day you discuss it, just let me know. If I'm close enough, I'll come in person. And if not, let's arrange a Skype date. I truly love to talk books with booky people.

From Coffeee: It's History, Cultivation, and Uses, by Robert Hewitt, 1872
Book clubs are a fabulous invention, and they've been around for a long time. (Or at least "long" in American time. Europeans consider the 1700s the recent past.) Scholars may debate, but I believe much of what we recognize as the modern idea of the book club--meeting to talk of all things literary--began in the European coffee houses of the late 1600s and early 1700s. Folks had always gathered to talk literature and politics and writing--no Kardashian gossip or what-actress-has-the-biggest-baby-bump for these guys (although there was probably a version of this sort of gossip, maybe something like "who is the king beheading today?")--but suddenly these gatherings exploded. This is because three new items appeared on ships from the Far East and other exotic places.

These three things are now a bastion of modern life. They certainly make my life happy. They were:

1. Coffee
2. Tea
3. Chocolate

From Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
No one needed much of an excuse to gather to eat and drink these things, and so they did. Or, only the men did, at first, though the women would beginning gathering publicly just a short time after. These coffeehouses were different than taverns: for one thing, they were "men only" gatherings. Sort of latter-day versions of the "No Girls Allowed" sign in the treehouse.

 Any man, of any social class, could enter the coffeehouse. But there were a few rules. According to The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a penny was usually charged for admission. And, "Some establishments posted rules of behavior stipulating that all customers were deemed equal and prohibiting gambling, swearing, quarrelling, and mourning over lost love."

I love this. Basically, no one could bash their exes or brawl in the coffeehouse. (Or, at least, were encouraged not to. But those wigged men, I'm sure, could throw down.) However, these were places for partaking of all the good things, including books, newspapers, and other assorted treatises. (People wrote treatises back them, tacked them up on trees and buildings around town. Now we blog.)

In the 1700s, especially in England, coffeehouses became so popular and important that like-minded folks gathered in specific places: ship captains and assorted seaman in one coffeehouse, politicians in another, businessmen and doctors in yet another. Rank and class seems to have not been much of an issue.

Today, book clubs meet--usually in someone's private home or in a coffee shop around town--and they are grand things. A list of books is drawn up, books are borrowed and bought, and then read and discussed. There're usually good things to eat and drink at these gatherings, including coffee--and soemtimes wine. Sometimes the authors arrive to add an extra element to the discussion. In our blindingly fast-paced world, a world in which many of us spend in artificial light, typing at a keypad or Ipad or Iphone, book clubs are a chance to slow down, to engage the brain and the imagination, to enjoy fellowship with other book lovers and friends.

A while back, I was a member of a book club I adored. Called "The Unconventional Book Club," we were an assortment of ages and backgrounds, we read books of all genres (fiction and nonfiction) and we met monthly in each other's homes. There was good food to be had, and wine and coffee to be drunk. And, more often than not, there was chocolate.

Sadly, busy schedules got the better of us all, and we disbanded. Now, I'm back in grad school, in a MFA program surrounded by other writers and teachers, all readers. At my first residency, there were inpromptu "book clubs" meeting everywhere, at all times: in the dininghall at meals, walking to lectures and readings, during and after workshops, and in the dorms. We shared beloved book titles and authors, talked writing into the wee hours. We are carrying on the traditions of the coffeehouses, only ours aren't segregated by gender.
However, there is still wine, lots of coffee, and chocolate.

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