Reading Well with Others: The Book Club as Critical Method

“Shallow Focus Photography of Books” by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash.

Over the course of three weeks, we each took turns writing and responding to each other in the same Google Doc, hoping to understand a phenomenon that motivates our lives and work: the book club. As members of multiple book clubs, including a thriving cross-university one that we co-founded and another that entails just the two of us meeting monthly over a meal, we wanted to theorize together the book club’s potential. Why do we find these groups so generative, and why do we keep joining them? We consider both the methodology of the book club—that is, the strategies and structures that typically comprise a meeting—and the book club as itself a methodology, as a social practice of reading with the other constantly in mind. In doing so, we argue against the common conceptualization of reading as a solitary activity, instead emphasizing the possibilities for community that reading can offer, and that the book club actualizes. Although we admit the assumption that book clubs are for suburban women who focus more on drinking wine than on discussing the book can be accurate, we suggest that such trends do not undercut the book club’s possibilities as a critical method. In our dialogue, we take seriously this communal, collaborative way of reading as providing useful insights into what it means to experience literature. 

— Maggie Laurel Boyd and Bekah Waalkes

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MLB: I’m currently in at least five book clubs, and they run the gambit from seminar style conversations on canonical literary fiction to very snacky, very chatty discussions of so-called romantasy. I have found that, as a concept, the book club encompasses everything from spirited debates over the fragmented difficulty of After Sappho to spirited debates over the best leading man across the Sarah J. Maas cinematic universe—both of which occurred in my book clubs this past summer. The key is the very spiritedness of the book club, as a space and a place in which we get invested in books in and as a community. The book club necessarily entails a togetherness that defies the typical framing of reading as a solitary act, making it into an event—often one accompanied—for me—by Polar Seltzer and Smartfood. There’s something about consuming books while also consuming little finger foods—or big ones, as when some of my book clubs meet over pizza—that really transforms reading for me into a nourishing experience.

RJW: I love that you’re writing about nourishment, especially since we literally met at the Porter Square Panera last night to talk about Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth. The spiritedness of the book club is what stands out to me about your response—and thank you for starting the whole thing off!—since I’ve been trying to determine what is so different about our book club of two, and the other reading group we run together, from, say, the graduate seminar. Unlike a class, where the expectation is some kind of knowledge and mastery over a text, the book club feels like a place to experiment with ideas and riff off of each other. I find myself starting sentences with no idea where they go, and often I’m surprised at how differently I think when there are other people to pick up my ideas and spin them. Like, wow: this is generative. So, I think that’s what I’d add: reading with others is nourishing, spirited, and  generative. There’s something improvisational and free about the book club, particularly when you’re debating what to read next.

MLB: Book club is a playful space, ideally a fun space, and that feels like a fruitful affective mode for approaching a text—and maybe even more so than the extractive mode that I might implement for a seminar, in which I am aiming to identify and draw out the most important and/or most relevant takeaways. I’m thinking of when we launched our discussion of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony with questions: is the character Ts’eh real? Is she a goddess? Or, when we started discussing Toni Morrison’s A Mercy wondering: is the emoji that I chose to use in tweeting about our book club the best option, or would you choose another one? We read both books with our larger book group—one that is open to all Boston literature grad students—and we immediately got a lively conversation going, would you say?

RJW: Yes, especially because, in each case, people had a range of responses.

MLB: Right—and I believe that level of engagement in part stemmed from the fact it was a matter of exploring possibilities, rather than proving points, or even building arguments. And we arrive at such interesting places when we take this sort of curious approach. Just last night, you and I were at another meeting of our larger book group discussing Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, and I was delighted at the ideas that emerged as we kept volleying ideas around. Going in, I had thought, wow, that’s a good book, and there is so much in here about what it means to consume—and to fail to consume—the products of powerful structures. And then others got me thinking about how this book responds to Jane Eyre and the bildungsroman genre, about how Jeannette McCurdy perhaps owes her provocative title I’m Glad My Mom Died to Dangarembga’s similarly startling opening line, about how shame and sexuality appear and overlap, about who Lucía is and how she is related to the central family. I entered that space with so few prepared thoughts, and then got to just dwell in a communal thinking process as we wrestled with the text, joked about it, asked questions, mulled over answers…

RJW: Speaking of mulling—I’ve been mulling over your point here for a few days (I’m at a conference in Seattle). To me, it feels like the less hierarchical structure of the book club makes these playful conversations with the text feel possible.

MLB: Unlike teaching the books we read, or—now that I’m thinking of conferencing—presenting a paper on one, we aren’t making a particular case for or about the novel or trying to derive some specific lesson from it. And that does seem crucial to how the book club operates.

RJW: No one is really in charge, and that’s freeing. You can enter with your guard down and gain so much from a single text. So, what does it mean to say the book club is a method? It’s an affective mode, like you said earlier, a mode that is not just the negation of the seminar and the performance of mastery. The book club is a conversation. You’re only accountable to the people around you. The book club as method suggests that the logic of reading for pleasure and communal reading is not excluded from, but part of the seriousness of literary study. But the book club can be a rigorous space, as well. This obviously feels true in the book club we convene with fellow English grad students from Boston colleges, but I think it’s also true in the “traditional” book club, a space coded as both feminine and middlebrow. The book club can collapse the divide between rigorous and fun. There’s serious intellectual inquiry that can begin with questions that seem simple, like did you like it? What did we think of that character? How does this event fit in the larger plot? Like you’re saying with some of our opening questions—like choosing the right emoji to represent A Mercy—what feels lighthearted and low stakes also offers an opening into thinking about the unrepresentability of history, the instability of narrative form, the way we translate our reading experiences to each other.

MLB: This captures why I cherish the book club as a space and a practice of reading—not just that it’s a community of perspectives that really help diversify and deepen my own understanding of the text, but also that it welcomes and maybe even requires a method built on wondering, on an openness to each other’s ideas, on discussion that has no real trajectory. We’re not trying to get to any particular point, we’re just along for the ride, together, and—to mix my metaphors—stopping and smelling the flowers. We get to roam around in our thinking and let the text really become a communal experience rather than only a source of information. And your point about the idea of the book club as feminine, even flighty, raises a really interesting aspect of our conversation: the book club in its cultural milieu. I can think of my mother—also an ardent participator in book clubs—joking that one of hers felt more like ‘a wine-and-cheese club,’ or of a friend who joined a local book club to make friends and enjoys reporting on how many of her group—or really, how few—-read each book. Last time, she was the only one who had finished the book, and she has no plans to read the next one, a thriller that doesn’t interest her. So, what about the book club when there’s little to no discussion of the book? I wonder if the sense of reading alongside a community of readers endures, even when you arrive at the meeting and barely discuss the book that supposedly brought you together.

RJW: As someone who recently did not finish reading the book—Claire Keegan’s Antarctica—for our book club meeting, the book club acts as a space where there is no guilt or shame. If we read collaboratively, reading opens up to be more than an assignment or a chore. Reading isn’t punishing. You are allowed to not pick up the book, simply because you’re busy or because that particular book didn’t draw you in. This subtle resistance is a way of pushing back against the homogeneity and consensus that a classroom and an assignment can sometimes demand. You can do what you want, read what you want, and still show up to a communal space and absorb other people’s thinking out loud.

MLB: There’s such a wide range of how we arrive at a book club, and how book club happens. In my experience, sometimes we discuss the book only for the first 15 minutes and then from there, we start discussing life updates and recent work developments and our next travel plans. Yes, in those cases, the book motivates us to gather, and, but sometimes the gathering itself matters more than discussing the book does. And this is precisely the dynamic that sits at the center of the book club as a concept—even when the book is not itself the centerpiece of discussion, it still can be a force that brings us together, and that togetherness in turn opens us up to new ways of reading and being with each other.

RJW: I resonate with what you’re saying about the practice of the book club as one of radical openness to others and their ideas. There’s an essay by Barbara Johnson that I treasure called “Nothing Fails Like Success,” where Johnson writes that a “reading is strong… to the extent that it encounters and propagates the surprise of otherness. The impossible but necessary task of the reader is to set herself up to be surprised.”1 Johnson is talking about why deconstructive readings are worth doing even if the critical moves are repeatable and ‘unsurprising,’ but I take her point to be even larger. A good reading is one that doesn’t achieve one final word on the book, but makes us see how surprising, how large, how complex a text is. And this is the practice of book clubs. There are so many times that I’ve gone to a book club thinking that I have understood the text just fine on my own, and then through conversation, what becomes clear is how very little I have understood the book at all. I love this feeling: it’s sort of analogous to traveling, to return to your mixed metaphors of journeying, to get to see ideas I never would have been exposed to at home.

MLB: Aha—because sometimes we can become so at home in our way of reading, and, as much as that comfort makes our favorite books a soft place to land, it also closes our senses to other ideas percolating in the text.

RJW: I’m going to expose myself here, but I was worried when we read Housekeeping. It’s maybe my favorite book of all time, so I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy discussing it, to be honest. There’s so much that I love in that novel, and I teach it to undergraduates regularly: my readings felt pretty strong and pretty settled. But when we actually talked about Housekeeping, I felt pretty amazed. Our friends and peers pointed out things in the book I had never noticed, and it didn’t make my readings weaker or imprecise—instead, reading with others reminded me that my first exposure to Housekeeping was in an undergraduate literature class. It was the very first book that felt alive to me, that felt worthy of spending hours trying to understand and discuss with others. But almost eight years later, my readings of Housekeepinghad evacuated the novel of its aliveness, its capacity to surprise. Our book club resurrected this sense of communal reading to me, reminding me how other people’s traces accrue in our reading practices, taking a text I thought I had pinned down perfectly and showing me how much more open and surprising it is.

MLB: While we’re quoting some of our favorite theories on reading, let me turn to a beautifully alliterative phrase from Rita Felski: “readers can be touched, troubled, perhaps even transformed by the texts they read.”2 Later, Felski gives another triptych: “literary works are able to reach, reorient, and even reconfigure their readers.”3 Now, Felski is arguing against critique, so the opposite of Johnson, and yet they converge on the text as, importantly, an experience, one capable of astonishing readers, even altering them (and Jude the Obscure certainly astonished me). If we arrive at literature—or book clubs—thinking we have all the answers, we miss these opportunities to reconfigure our thinking and to be ourselves reconfigured. Felski writes elsewhere in The Limits of Critique that the emphasis on both depth and surface level readings positions the text as an object when it is really a phenomenon, accentuating instead that reading “is a cocreation between actors that leaves neither party unchanged.”4 I love this framing of reading as co-creation, and I think the book club amplifies that, bringing more insights into the co-creative aspect. Even when we know a text so well, like you with Housekeeping, the chance to share it means new constellations of co-creators and all the changes to our readings and our selves that such assemblages can bring. And, as lovers of the book club, I think we would both agree that this process can be nothing short of life-giving. Of course, for us, such a phrase would evoke Joan Didion’s famous insistence that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” which makes me think, in turn, of Leslie Jamison’s reflection on this quote.5 Jamison describes her initial sense that Didion was endorsing storytelling as a survival strategy, and then her realization that Didion was criticizing our reliance on stories.6 But, through her experience in recovery, Jamison finds that stories are not—or not only—a scheme for self-deception; they also function as a way to support each other and ourselves.7 I wonder if both can’t be true, and not just when it comes to personal narrative—that storytelling helps us make sense of our lives and that we use such sense-making as reassurance. And perhaps, in light of that possibility, we might amend Didion’s turn-of-phrase to “we share stories in order to live” to reflect how reading as an act of co-creation not only helps us understand our lives, but also can hearten us to live those lives.

RJW: This feels so true to me, particularly given that we are two people whose favorite hobby (reading) has become their career—it is life-giving to co-create these worlds, to share stories and remain open to how other people challenge us and change us. And I’d argue that the book club as method suggests not just that having these conversations can transform our ideas about books in the moment, like my rigid readings of Housekeeping turned upside down, but also that it changes how reading is done. All reading becomes social and collaborative. When I read a book with you, or our other book groups, or even a book that someone else has recommended to me, my reading feels very informed by the trace of that person. It’s a generative distraction: when we read Indelicacy by Amina Cain together, I kept thinking, this is such a Maggie book, or wondering, what will Maggie think about this part?

MLB: And I was thinking the same in return—oh this is such a Bekah book. We both just devour a book that’s thinking a lot about books.

RJW: Though I was reading alone, in my apartment, the text felt like it was a vector of our friendship and our co-reading. I was thinking of you while I read, thinking of what we would talk about. The book club opens us up to the possibility that none of our reading belongs only to us: that our friends and interlocutors and lives come to bear on the way we read now. This is sometimes very pleasurable but also occasionally annoying or even painful, like reading a book an ex gave you long after you broke up. I find that the book club opens up the solitariness of reading, which can be so delightful but also feels like a risk. If you can’t read alone any more, if every book has a story to tell about how you came to open it, then many of the romantic fantasies of reading (and being an intellectual) are punctured.

MLB: Your point that this idea intervenes in the perception that being a reader means having a special privilege over the text makes me think of friends and family who will say “I’m not a reader like you,” as if their reading doesn’t count because it differs from mine, or that say “I’m not reading anything intellectual,” as if a fun and light-hearted book doesn’t have any value. I like to think of book clubs as open to all possible types of readers and types of reading, and as defying any sentiment that you must have the one right approach to get the one right idea about a text. Now, I don’t dismiss that reading is a skill—this is the exact skill that I aim to teach my students, to help them better navigate a digital ecosystem in which we are constantly bombarded with information and must be really thoughtful about how we interpret all that content. Being a reader does provide insights and being in community with other readers—whether that entails being in their physical presence, or not, as you describe—inspires and augments and maybe even complicates those insights. And, of course, that openness to others might be as risky as it is rewarding. But then I think of Audre Lorde writing that poetry is not a luxury because it helps us “learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it… learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living” and thus combat the fear and silence engendered by misogyny.8 To me, Lorde encapsulates that scrutinizing language is personal, and so can feel burdensome, and simultaneously can become empowering. And, while on the subject of vulnerability as a double-edged sword, I always want to turn to Louise Erdrich in Future Home of the Living God: “We are so brief. A one-day dandelion… I don’t know why it is given to us to be so mortal and to feel so much. It is a cruel trick, and glorious.”9 It can be a cruel trick to experience books full of the traces of others, and yet I also find it so glorious. And, can I just say, it is particularly so, so glorious to share so many book clubs with you, Bekah. Sometimes we joke that we are each other’s ‘ideal readers,’ and I truly do think that you are my ideal reading buddy, too. I look at any of my bookcases (books are a work expense, okay), and I see so many spines that recall not just the story inside, but also the memories of discussing it with you. It’s yet another reminder that whenever I open a book, I open all these treasured connections and collaborations and co-creations.

RJW: “Openness to others might be as risky as it is rewarding”—what a perfect phrase, Maggie. Reading in its most capacious, social, collaborative sense is exactly that; it can feel like a burden (I’m thinking about my last-ditch efforts to read Jude the Obscure in about a week) and a celebration, sometimes all at once. The book club reminds me of this in a tangible, practical way—reading with others isn’t just a cute theory or wishful thinking about how to be in the world. It is a practice. When I show up to read with others, whether when we meet or when I put my eyes to the page alone, I have to stay open and curious. I have to admit I don’t have a special relationship with the book, like you’re saying. I have to admit that I don’t know things and be okay with the fact that this process is not straightforward or linear or even always productive, in the sense of getting a final product. Reading with other people in mind is distracting, which mirrors the tangents and digressions of talking out loud with people about books. Sometimes it’s frustrating, like when someone starts down a new path of inquiry and you weren’t finished with what you were saying.

MLB: And I do find the book club often feels like it moves in circles, or maybe more like squiggles, as we return to earlier points and jump forward to later parts of the book, and so on.

RJW: Yes, because the book club models an openness to this wandering, one we’re trying to emulate in this form. Writing to you like this is both fun and difficult, because I have no idea where this is going—I read what you say, think a little bit, and then respond. I am trying to resist sentimentality, because as we’ve both been reminding ourselves and each other, the book club is a space of rigor and experimentation, for readers who are ‘professional’ like us and for readers who open a book just for fun. But in the end, for me at least, this openness is both a new way to imagine criticism and academic work, like we’re doing in this conversation, and also to be in relation with others—with you. I’m remembering the start of our reading together: it was in early 2020, I was studying for my orals exam and reading Moby-Dick for the first time, and you offered to read with me. We met up at Legal Seafood restaurants around Boston, despite the fact that neither of us really eats seafood, and sat at the bar and talked about one of the wildest, weirdest books I have ever read. I can’t remember exactly what we talked about, Maggie, but I am grateful to be reading with you still today. I’ll close with a favorite line from Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, itself about readers reading: “What is more natural than that a solidarity, a complicity, a bond should be established between Reader and Reader, thanks to the book?”10 There’s something natural about reading with others but reading with you more generally—our bond endures.

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  1. Barbara Johnson, “Nothing Fails Like Success,” The Barbara Johnson Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014): 331.
  2. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015): 65.
  3. Felski, The Limits of Critique, 177.
  4. Felski, The Limits of Critique, 84.
  5. Joan Didion, The White Album (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979): 11.
  6. Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2018): 571.
  7. Jamison, The Recovering, 571.
  8. Audre Lorde, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 2007): 36-39.
  9. Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God (New York: HarperCollins, 2017): 120.
  10. Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler (New York: Harcourt, 1981): 32.