Several years ago, I joined a book club. A friend of mine was already part of the club, and she enticed me to join with a book that had been on my reading list for a while. It was a blast to have a group of folks to discuss it with — I hadn’t really done that since graduate school. I ended up dropping out of the club after my reading interests diverged from everyone else’s, but I’m still glad I was part of it for a while.
At the start of the year, some of my coworkers created a different sort of book club. Inspired by The Morning News Tournament of Books, we decided to read all of the books in the tournament and see how our reviews stacked up against the judges’ opinions. We divvied up the reading so each person covered 2-4 books. That’s how I ended up breaking out of my literary rut and reading All the Light We Cannot See. I enjoyed the excuse to check out books outside of my normal genres, and it is fun to see what my coworkers thought of these books.
Now that we’re finishing the tournament, I’m moving on to my next book club of sorts. This time, Matt encouraged us to join Scott Berkun’s book club for his book Making Things Happen. It sounded interesting, so I rented a Kindle copy and started reading. I’m only one chapter in so far, so I don’t have much to say yet, but I’m enjoying the process — especially knowing that there is a whole group of other professionals interested in talking it over at the same time.
I have always been an avid reader, but I admit I’ve gone through dry spells and times when I just couldn’t settle on a good book to read. Book clubs are a fun way for me to discover new books, motivate myself to get reading, and reflect on the books I finish. Which reminds me — do you have any favorite books I should add to my reading list?
If you read only one book this year, please let it be All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. The book follows two characters as they grow up in the context of World War II. Werner, a German boy, makes his way from an orphanage to Hitler’s army, and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, escapes from Paris to the seaside in Saint-Malo.
Not only does the book go back and forth between the two characters, it also intersperses their life stories with scenes from later in the war. And it does it all with a kind of poetry, resulting in the best book I have read in quite some time.
Take this moment when Werner is listening for radio transmissions while driving through Ukraine:
It’s late afternoon. All day they have moved through this strange and desolate region and have seen nothing but sunflowers. Werner runs the needle through the frequencies, switches bands, retunes the transceiver again, scouring the static. The air swarms with it day and night, a great, sad, sinister Ukrainian static that seems to have been here long before humans figured out how to hear it.
And Marie-Laure’s father as he worries about how he is raising his daughter alone:
There has always been a sliver of panic in him, deeply buried, when it comes to his daughter: a fear that he is no good as a father, that he is doing everything wrong. That he never quite understood the rules. All those Parisian mothers pushing buggies through the Jardin des Plantes or holding up cardigans in department stores—it seemed to him that those women nodded to each other as they passed, as though each possessed some secret knowledge that he did not. How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?
So go find yourself a copy — and if you ask nicely, I might lend you mine. If I’m not rereading it already.
Why don’t I just write about what’s real? A lot of twentieth-century— and twenty-first-century—American readers think that that’s all they want. They want nonfiction. They’ll say, I don’t read fiction because it isn’t real. This is incredibly naive. Fiction is something that only human beings do, and only in certain circumstances. We don’t know exactly for what purposes. But one of the things it does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before.
This is what a lot of mystical disciplines are after—simply seeing, really seeing, really being aware. Which means you’re recognizing the things around you more deeply, but they also seem new. So the seeing-as-new and recognition are really the same thing.
Could you elaborate on this idea just a little?
Not adequately! I can only muddle at it. A very good book tells me news, tells me things I didn’t know, or didn’t know I knew, yet I recognize them— yes, I see, yes, this is how the world is. Fiction—and poetry and drama— cleanse the doors of perception.
All the arts do this. Music, painting, dance say for us what can’t be said in words. But the mystery of literature is that it does say it in words, often straightforward ones.
Read the full interview: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Art of Fiction No. 221 – Interviewed by John Wray
*Hat tip to Longreads for making me aware of this interview.