Like a lot of other people, I was ready on my own to try some new kinds of reading, but I didn’t know what to look for. I found it in this group; why, I even learned to appreciate someone’s promoting a book because it had an “uplifting message.” We’ve read J.K. Rowling (who, in my little sanctuary sealed against popular reading, I believed to be a man), Jodi Picoult, and Neil Gaiman, just to name a few authors of books I’d never have touched the covers of on my own.
In a small way, the variety of texts covered makes it more natural for people to treat one another with respect. In some of the other groups I’ve been involved with, people have been outwardly nice, but there has been a sort of obvious but unspoken intellectual pecking order, and a lot of comments made clearly were intended solely to establish the speaker’s analytical prowess. This group, however, isn’t hierarchical, and the variety of texts helps to keep it from getting that way. No matter how knowledgable anyone in the group may be about some aspect of literature, I don’t think anyone has the kind of intellect or breadth of reading experience that would position him or her among the most insightful people in the room month after month. Sometimes the discussion ends up taking on issues that involve some popular media phenomenon surrounding the book, its adaptation into another medium, the era or culture portrayed in the book, or something in someone’s life experience that helps the rest of us understand the plot of a text more fully. I think almost everyone, at some point, has become the most valued source of knowledge in the room . Since members come to this group through Meetup, which covers a wide variety of issues, they bring with them varying levels of formal literary education, reading experience, and time habitually devoted to readings. And, in fact, if you had no information besides people’s roles in the group discussion, I don’t think you could tell which person came from which background.
When this group was initially founded, I was obsessed with making sure that everyone treated others with respect. With all the power games and insensitivities I’d seen and tried in vain to eliminate in professional situations, classrooms, and one or two other reading groups, I had no idea how I was going to guard the group dynamic against these evils without putting a damper on group conversations. Although I can see a few minor factors that account for people’s overall respectful behavior in this group, I have no idea why people at our meetings are generally warmer and more tolerant than I would have expected them to be. I won’t pretend that there are no awkward moments or that all of us haven’t probably fallen in a belly flop on someone else’s nerves; people simply seem to take a more laid back approach in this group than they do in other contexts while still voicing some very strong opinions about various books. Whatever the reason may be, that’s just how it is.
With all of that in mind, I’d like to see you, our members who read all of this internet material but just hasn’t made it to a meeting yet, come and join us at the next one. It’s a busy month but a good time to start. If you’ve felt like you had to read a few hundred pages at least for there to be a point in your coming to a meeting, now you can read three or four short stories, most of which rank on the short side of the general short story universe, and you’ll have one whole author’s texts on the agenda covered.
In the end, I am, of course, glad to see the group still doing a few key things that I found important two years ago and still consider important now. Important, absolutely. But absolutely not all that this group does, and far from being the most important qualities that, in the future, it should exhibit. If there’s one opportunity this group offers its members, it’s the chance to assume an active role–in this blog, in suggestions to Rachel and Cristy, in bringing up new issues during discussions, in nominating texts, and also in ____________, especially in _____________, _________ being that thing I failed to mention because it could be any number of things that one of you would like us to try but haven’t brought up. Please bring _________________ up. Somewhere among the different ways that silent members of this group fill in that blank, we might find the new most important things in this group for the years to come.