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September 29, 2009

Elizabeth Berg: My Itty Bitty Book Club

Posted by webmaster
How many people does it take for a reading group? Elizabeth Berg, today's guest blogger, proves that sometimes two is the magic number as she recalls weekly phone conversations she had with a long-distance friend about books.

Elizabeth is the author of two nonfiction works and several novels, the most recent of which is
Home Safe, the story of a mother and daughter forced to reassess their lives after a disturbing secret comes to light.

Back in the Pleistocene age, before I was a published writer, I was a member of a book club. It consisted of me and my best friend, Phyllis. At the time, I was living in Boston and married to a man who took justifiable pride in his ability to cook dinner one night a week, even if what he made each time was the exact same thing. He cooked on Sunday nights, and on those nights I was the happy beneficiary of Caesar salad complete with homemade croutons, lamb chops cooked perfectly on the grill, a baked potato, and tomatoes topped with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and then broiled.

While my husband cooked, I would go up to the bedroom, stretch out on the bed, and call Phyllis. She lived in California and I didn't get to see her very often, so these weekly phone calls were very important to us. We talked about a lot of things, but we almost always spent a good part of the conversation talking about books, because we both loved them and needed them as much as we needed oxygen and Caesar salad.

Phyllis is a very sensitive person. I'll tell you how sensitive. One time we were having a little tiff because I thought she was being insensitive at a time when my skin was feeling particularly thin. I told her, "I mean I'm feeling really fragile, right now." And she stared at me with her big blue eyes and said, "I feel fragile ALL the time." I thought about getting mad, but then I just said, "Yeah, well, okay, you win, then." I tell you this because Phyllis, being the number one most sensitive person in the country, is also my number one favorite person with whom to share things that are close to my heart. Such as certain passages in a book. Because she gives you the response el grande. Where I might be moved by a passage, she will be brought to tears by it. Where humorous writing might make me giggle, it makes her laugh out loud --- long and hard.

So. Imagine the scene: me, full of lovely anticipation, stretched out on my bed. From the kitchen below are coming the glorious smells of garlic sizzling in olive oil and potatoes baking in the oven. The bedroom door is closed. My daughters know if they need anything, they can ask their capable Dad, and he'll deliver. I have a block of time to have a good conversation, and I will not be interrupted. For a young mother, this is about as close to Nirvana as it gets.

I dial Phyllis' number, and she knows it's me before she answers, and this is in the days before call waiting. She gets ready to talk, which means she stretches out, too. And we're off. At some point, I am likely to say to Phyllis, "Listen to this," and then read a section of book that I love. And we will sigh and carry on and cluck in admiration of the author like a couple of literary hens. And then she will tell me about what she's reading that she loves. It's rarely the same book that we're reading --- I tend to focus on contemporary fiction; her choices are more eclectic. But I look upon these phone calls as book clubs all the same. Because they are a sanctioned time and place for the review and appreciation for an art form that really rings our chimes. An art form that gets us where we live, one that informs and inspires and cheers us and often consoles us in a way that nothing else can. Books make us feel more awake, more alive. And we use books not only for our own pleasure and edification, but to make the bonds between us as friends even tighter.

I think that's the value of good book clubs, no matter their size. I think what I've just described is what they do. They bring people together for an exchange of worthwhile ideas and the particular kind of relief that comes from having someone else see and appreciate the kind of things you do, i.e., books and reading. This makes you feel not so alone in a lonely universe. Many book clubs also provide good food and drink so that while the soul is nourished the body can be, too, and let me tell you, that is my kind of book club. Most book clubs allow for dissent, even welcome it, because civilized dissent can lead to learning things you didn't know before; and it can lead to appreciation of another's point of view, even if it's radically different from your own.

It's no secret that publishing houses are ecstatic about the fact that there are so many book clubs. Authors, too, know that when your title is chosen for a book club selection, it's a good thing, not only because it can up your sales numbers, but because it increases awareness of you and your work in general. I cannot tell you how gratified I am when I get a letter from someone saying, "We read one of your titles in my book club and we all really liked it." (My absolute favorite, I must tell you, was a letter that said, "Well, Now I'm going to have to go out and buy every single thing you've ever written." I might enlarge that woman's letter and make it into wallpaper.)

I love being a writer, and I am well aware of my good luck at able to support myself by being one. But I miss those days of being only a reader, oblivious to my own words and instead focused fully on analysis and praise of another's. After all these years, I think it's time to find another book club. The glory of their popularity means I won't have to look hard to find one.

---Elizabeth Berg