(I am giving myself permission to share parts of the emotional and economic and professional journey from full-time tenured professor to staff person to contingent faculty person to self-employed person here.)
One of my biggest worries when I left academia was that I would be losing access to one of my favourite things in the whole world: reading good books and talking about them with smart people. I knew of such things as book clubs, of course, but I had never been a part of one AND I assumed that there was a good reason for that. Who wants a literature prof in their book club? It would be inviting the killjoy into the room.
As it turns out, I was wrong. In one of those instances where you send a request out into the universe (or, in this case, to Facebook) and the universe (aka your community) responds, I quickly became the facilitator for not one, but two local book groups. One is held at my local independent bookstore, Epic Books on Locke Street in Hamilton. They had a successful graphic novel book club but the owner, Jaime, wanted a general fiction book club and she didn’t want to have to be the one to moderate or lead it. The other is the Bossy Pants Book Club, named after my fear of being the bossypants literature professor nobody wanted to read books with. This is the book club that rotates among members’ homes and involves not only talking about the books (which we do, a lot, because I am not the only bossypants literature professor in the group!) but drinking wine and lamenting about the state of the world.
In the Epic Books club, I share book selection duties with the store’s owner. She knows what she has in excess stock, what is coming out in paperback this season, what might appeal to her regular customers, what is going to be generating buzz. I think about things like access to books in translation, gender parity among authors, themes to keep me engaged with the pile of texts as a group. We’ve been pretty successful, with the notable and painful exception of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red early on in the group’s existence. It is a beautiful book and it isn’t just the book’s substantial heft that makes it difficult for a general fiction book club; it’s the fact that Pamuk sets up the novel as a mystery and then defies multiple conventions of the genre. He writes about religion and tradition and perspective and love and narrative and gender and encounters between the Ottoman Empire and the West and it’s all lovely—but dense. Most of the members didn’t finish it and I admitted it was better suited for a literature seminar spanning several weeks than for an evening discussion with tea and cookies.
For the first year of the Bossy Pants Book Club, I either selected the books outright or presented a few options for the group to vote on. They appreciated my bossing them around, or so they said. In the second year, we each brought a few suggestions and voted on them one-by-one, coming up with 12 books as a group. This has given us a super interesting list of fiction, non-fiction, memoir, and graphic texts, with several of them available as book club kits via our public library.
Here’s our list for 2017-2018:
Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson
Hunger, Roxane Gay
Yardwork, Daniel Coleman
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
Long, Black Veil, Jennifer Finney Boylan
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
American Gods, Niel Gaiman
Hilbilly Elegy, JD Vance
All that Matters, Wayson Choy
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Ru, Kim Thuy
I just finished reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger for this month’s meeting and this prompted me to write about being in book clubs. As a German professor, I might not have given myself the time or opportunity to read as widely as the book clubs have asked me to. As a literature professor who found it hard to re-teach material, I spent a lot of time scoping out new titles in my course areas to teach—but that is different than reading things for pleasure. Hunger is painful and honest and angry and I’m glad it exists in the world. I’m doubly glad that I have the opportunity to talk about it with a group of smart, compassionate women and men who are passionate about gender justice.
Reading memoirs invites us into the author’s lived experience and the narrative they have built out of that. Because these are so often stories of human frailty, memoirs invite us to examine our own experiences and see them as part of the common fabric of humanity, rather than as idiosyncratic events that transpired only in our lives. So reading about sexual violence can be difficult, whether or not the reader has personally experienced the type of violence portrayed in the text. Reading Hunger has me a bit agitated—about rape and violence, about body image and body size and how society treats overweight people and how family can be a source of hurt as well as a source of healing. I’m going to take my agitated feelings to book club tomorrow and funnel my anger and sadness into specific questions about the book and how Gay chose to tell her experience. I’m interested in her voice, the persona she projects on the page, my experience of her persona on Twitter—where she is quite active—and how I relate to that persona as a feminist in a different sort of body.
The fact that I get to do this with people who are interested in our collective response to these texts is a huge joy and one of the unexpected blessings that life outside academia has brought me.