In a book club, you learn a lot about other people and their reading habits. About "talkers" and "listeners." About words "striking a chord." About diversity and tolerance.
We are so Canadian. So polite. We tend not to respond to what other people say, even if they sound outrageous, self-centred, bigoted, judgmental, abusive. For example, I hate it when a female character with a sex life is referred to in the discussion as a "slut." In this day and age! Women trashing the choices other women dare to make? Yet I say nothing. We just nod. Yes, try to focus on the words, the ideas, not on the person who says them, for sure. Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion (even if they are wrong, we think to ourselves.) "Ingenious, but wrong," a professor used to write on our essays. "But how can any opinion be wrong?" we asked in surprise, in disgust. "It's my opinion, whatever it is." It is wrong if it is not supported by the text, if it contradicts or ignores what the book itself says. If it judges the art by externals. You know, if you reject Madame Bovary because adultery is against your personal values. Or reject sex as a potential path to enlightenment because of Victorian or fundamental values or the unquestioned acceptance of dogma. If you assume that what applies to you must also be applied to others, real or fictional.
Well, let's be honest. I have committed that sin myself. Not liking a book because I did not like what I perceived to be the underlying philosophy. I didn't like Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections because I felt it reflected values of misogyny, misanthropy, ageism, and ironic superiority, values in which I wish, or choose, not to be immersed, even for the pleasure of reading. Yet the contrast between the young American and the more mature Canadian makes me appreciate Wayson Choy even more. A man who loves life and people and his work as a writer so much that he is blind to the signs warning him to take care, that he could be in danger of losing that which he loves most. I suppose if I were more charitable I would wonder whether perhaps Franzen feels the same way about America. If Americans don't pay attention, they are in danger of losing it all.
Another good thing about a book club, if I force myself to confess, if I allow myself time to ponder, is the way it helps me become more aware of what I like and what ticks me off. Maybe even, about why certain things tick me off. About my own often self-defeating coping mechanisms, my dislike of negativity, my tendency towards avoidance, and contrariness. And impatience. Especially my impatience with interpretations which make something smaller than it really or potentially is, that are "reductive". Interpretations which discredit or ignore or miss ideas which are unfamiliar. I hate remarks that are mean-spirited, or condescending and superior. Readings which focus not on what is there but rather on what is not there, on what "should" be there. "Should" and the expression "Yah, but . . ." The difference between response and reaction. Whose book is this? I want to ask, or Write your own damn book, I am tempted to say. But that would sound disrespectful, letting my impatience get the better of me. Sorry. Not Canadian enough.
Usually I end up going home feeling lucky to have been able to learn from the negative experiences of other readers. Not what they think, necessarily. Not their interpretations, but what they noticed. For all those details are important, and if you look at them in the light of "how not to live your life," they all add to the writers subtle presentation of his own failures and idiosyncrasies, tolerated by those around him because of the cocoon of love he has built in the families he has created for himself.