Conversation Pieces

Clearly, the urge to gather socially to discuss shared reading experiences helps fill a deep need for intellectual stimulation and community in our often fragmented lives. I wasn’t feeling a particular void in either department back when my son started high school and I got a call from the mother of one his new classmates. She was organizing a book group and hoped I would join. “Well,” I said, “aside from the fact that I’m not much of a joiner, I review books for a living, and I’m very opinionated; I really don’t think you’d want me as a member.” “Oh come on,” she said. “It’ll be a good way to get to know the other mothers and keep track of what’s going on with our teenagers.”

Reluctantly, I signed on. That was fourteen years ago. With a few replacement members, eleven of us are still meeting regularly.

Nominally, our purpose is to discuss the book selected by whoever hosted the last meeting. These have run the gamut from Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action and Michael Allin’s Zarafa: A Giraffe’s True Story to Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. About the level of literary discourse, let’s just say that I’ve learned far more about the various challenges of children, marriage, work, and caring for aging parents than about literature. That said, we women are by this point bonded not just by years of potluck dinners and confidences but by the shared experience of several shelves of books.

As a book critic, the question I’m asked most often — after “How many books do you read a week?” — is “What should my book group read next?” I understand the urgency — and the challenge. Book clubs have all sorts of agendas. There are groups who want to keep up with the latest, most-talked-about blockbusters. Others pursue books by theme or author, delving into, say, the Russian Revolution or the complete works of Herman Melville. There are clubs that, like a sort of secular Bible study group, gather to parse classics that might seem daunting if tackled solo. There are groups that stick to biographies or historical novels. And there are groups — like mine — that read all over the map, in a variety of genres: dealer’s choice.

But whatever the focus, one thing book clubs share is an appreciation for literature as intellectual and social lubricant. Some books, however, are better conversation starters than others. Surprisingly, the correlation between literary quality and talking points isn’t always direct. Perfectly polished, beautifully written books may lack conversational traction. Often, moral uncertainty, narrative ambiguity, and rough patches of prose offer a better toehold for discussion.

In this column, I’ll be flagging a range of books — contemporary and classic fiction and nonfiction, new and old — that promise to spark interesting conversations. And since one book leads to another as inevitably as a cookie leads to milk, I’ll also point the way to additional, related reading.

To kick it all off, I’ve picked Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader — a charming, unabashed celebration of the lure of literature that posits what might happen if the Queen of England were to become a bookworm. Since a book club depends for its vibrancy on the fact that readers are all, actually, “uncommon” — each of us with our own peculiar slant on the books we encounter — this novella seemed especially apt to launch a column that concerns connecting through literature.

Bennett is a slyly subversive writer, at once entertaining and thought-provoking. Best known for his dozens of plays and screenplays, including The Madness of George III and The History Boys, he is also the author of several books of autobiography and short fiction, including a recently published pair of cheeky stories, Smut, about the hidden sexual impulses of two middle-aged, outwardly respectable matrons. One appealing aspect of The Uncommon Reader is that you can appreciate it fully even if you’ve never read another word by Bennett — though chances are, it will make you want to.

As befits a comedy of manners, Bennett’s Queen starts reading out of courtesy to the mobile librarian she finds parked in her castle drive, rather than out of genuine interest. Bennett explains, “She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was left to other people.” (Note Bennett’s absolutely killing, dead-on use of “one.”)

The Queen gropes blindly with her first picks, limited to names she recognizes and the amusing advice of a royal servant with a bias toward gay fiction. She finds Ivy Compton-Burnett rough going, but Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love “turned out to be a fortunate choice and in its way a momentous one. Had Her Majesty gone for another duff read, an early George Eliot, say, or a late Henry James, novice reader that she was she might have been put off reading for good and there would be no story to tell. Books, she would have thought, were work.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the Queen’s newly discovered passion, and this is where Bennett ramps up his satire, skewering everyone from heads of state to the royal corgis. To the dismay of her staff, instead of the dutiful, punctual, predictable monarch they’re used to, the Queen becomes “what is known as a handful.”

Bennett also has fun ribbing authors, who the Queen decides are better company on the page than in person. Running throughout is a cunning subtext of literary commentary. When her guards confiscate a book she’s left in her limo, calling it a potentially dangerous device, she protests: “But it was Anita Brookner!” The savvy reader will understand that Brookner’s novels about older women who run off to France for some excitement are as mild and harmless as literature gets. Note, too, which authors the Queen’s jealous dogs chew to bits whenever they get a chance: Ian McEwan and A. S. Byatt — wholly absorbing attention-grabbers.

Far from work, what the Queen discovers is that reading is like a gateway drug to thinking. It’s also addictive: “What she was finding also was how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.” Sound familiar? Reading, she realizes, is “a muscle” that needs to be developed: when she returns to Compton-Burnett — and even George Eliot and late Henry James — after having worked her way up through the literary canon, she’s ready for them.

I realize that some people may regard books touting the joy of same as self-promoting meta-literature. But Bennett’s delightful novella goes way beyond mere propagandizing. The Uncommon Reader is a love letter to literature, much as filmmakers François Truffaut’s Day for Night and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo are paeans to movies.

Not surprisingly, Bennett is hardly the only writer to wax elegiac over the power of prose. If you’re up for another one, Penelope Lively’s recent novel, How It All Began, concerns an uncommonly appealing, retired English teacher convalescing at her daughter’s house after a mugging that disrupts multiple lives. She complains of missing “her familiar walls, lined with language” and reflects on how her life has been informed and enlarged by reading, as if she’d been “handed a passport to another country.” [Editor’s Note: Read Brooke Allen’s review of How It All Began here.]

Finally, while we’re celebrating book love, you may want to check out Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. This delightful chapbook of essays on all things bookish considers, among other things, the trials of merging libraries with one’s mate and the thrill of meeting up with sesquipedalians — which she kindly tells us means “long words.” Like Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader and Lively’s How It All Began, it’s bliss for bibliophiles.