by Patty Morwood
Establishing and Maintaining a Literary Club
There are essays online about literary and book clubs that have floundered, to the dismay of those who tried to establish one. The groups that do flourish may seem rare, but I’ve a few things for you to try before you give up the effort. Anyway, what you see online isn’t the full or even partial picture of what is working out there. Take heart, it can be done!
I recommend you pray every step, especially the preliminary steps. Ask God for another woman to partner with you in establishing it. A faithful and well-read woman; or a woman who wants to one day be well-read. Pray about people you already know will constitute a strong nucleus that will be faithful in the first couple of years. The four of us who began literary were committed no matter what; the rest of the ladies joined us one by one.
Pray about the first three or four books (three or four months) you will read. We were melded together with the first two books we chose: Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There can’t be two books more different. Discussions inevitably came to comparing and contrasting the two: setting, milieu, tone, characters, conflict. We still refer to those two books after all these years. Austen’s works always set a standard of excellence; if you use her in the first year, you can’t go wrong. Her sentences are perfect; her humor layered and intelligent; her insights into character a marvel. But her outright descriptions of early nineteenth century British middle-class culture are so parsimonious that the reader must pay more attention to the characters’ actions and listen more closely to their conversations to understand the nuances and long-forgotten standards of that day. Austen invites you to work at seeing, to read again and again. It’s really a delight!
Don’t be promiscuous with your invitations. Be particular. We once had a lovely woman who had grown up lonely, in an orphanage in South America because her parents were missionaries on that continent, and that’s what they did with their children in those days. She was a serious reader, and probably the only truly erudite woman I have ever known.
During that time, we read Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton’s exposé of New York City’s upper-crust during the Gilded Age. For everyone in that society, strict codes of behavior were adhered to even if a lifetime of self-denial ensued. Countess Olenska has fled her husband and returned to her New York family, a family at the very pinnacle of the finest in that age and place. But she’s too loose for their comfort; just her presence threatens the family’s pristine reputation. Therefore, she must forthwith be sent back to Europe and her aristocratic husband!
Predictably, she slides into an almost-consumated affair with her cousin’s financé, so she’s now a definite liability. What society approved of in Europe’s aristocratic courts certainly wasn’t done, openly at least, in New York cultured society.
Now remember, Ruth Anne had grown up in an orphanage which was not even in her native country. Like Olenska -- and here the similarity ends -- she knew she was without a real ‘home,’ that she was without roots. When we met to discuss the book, she spoke for the Olenskas of the world. People who need to come home, who need psychological support, but who are instead brutally rejected and sent packing because of what their society expects of them and their family’s unwillingness to come alongside to redeem a life.
In our discussion that night, Ruth Anne peeled away my shallow literary analysis. She helped me see loneliness and alone-ness. There is no real way to change that condition, outside and apart from Jesus Christ Himself and the body of Christ. But this book wasn’t written by a believer, so this hope isn’t available for Wharton’s Countess Olenska, or any of the characters in that book.
When I later taught Age of Innocence in a classical high school classroom, the students learned how to do a real-life analysis along with the typical literary analysis. Indirectly Ruth Anne enabled them to “see” what that abjectly-alone character brought to the conflicts in the book and that there are real people like her all around them. I’m indebted to her and the entire literary club for the insights brought to life that evening.
This is just one example of a literary pivot point, an unexpected awareness that one unique person can bring to literary discussions.
Pray about where your literary ‘home’ will be. The first ten to twelve years or so we met at restaurants, many chosen to “match” the book. But as time went by, several things happened to change that practice. We tended to stay too long; our frustrated waiters were always wanting to turn their tables but unfortunately we were sometimes oblivious, so deep were we in our discussions. The lighting wasn’t enough, because of course we were all getting older! And the expenses added up.
So, we began to meet in our homes, which is a very lovely thing. Since there have invariably been caterers and unbelievably gifted cooks among us, the food and wine has been simply luscious! The evening is not only good books along with serious analysis, but great food and beautiful Christian fellowship centered on a great piece of world-renown literature: its conflicts, heroes and anti-heroes, and themes.
Pray about how the discussions will be facilitated. Our group doesn’t really have an established leader any more. It just happens that someone gets us started – as soon as possible. But when you are in the early stages of the club, it’s best if there are two or three of you who knowingly (but casually) take responsibility for the evening: getting it started, posing questions should discussion lag, and then managing the tapering off as the evening ends.
Remember this: always always small talk is the kiss of death! If the girls want to chat, agree to come early. The real purpose for gathering is literary discussion. Make this clear at the beginning. Everything is easier that way.
Establish a meeting date and don’t change it. We meet the last Tuesday evening of the month. It’s now pulsating through our veins as a day set apart from all others. Undoubtedly, when I’ve Alzheimer’s, it will still be there! An established calendar date and place actually works. It’s too frustrating to set and then reset dates, especially when young mothers have kids at home and they’ve engaged their husbands or a sitter so they can have the evening free. Even though several may have to miss an evening, don’t try to accommodate by changing the date. We’ve had club discussions with just three of us and it worked fine.
I’m so excited at the thought that some of you will begin your own literary club. You will love it! And you will love the variety of literary gifts you encounter as you read civilization’s classic authors … and how God has shaped the minds and perspectives of the women you see on literary night.
Up Next: Part Three: Personal Benefits of Participating in Literary Discussions
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