Post 44

Call Me When it's Over: Reflections on Book Clubs

A book is like any other work of art. The point is to have a worthy idea (in this case, a story) and execute it well. If you start with a story not worth telling, then no matter how skillfully you present it, it’s still not going to be worth people’s time. But if you have a worthy story, then at least you’re off to a proper start. Hopefully you’ll be able to do it justice.

So, obviously, some art is better than other art.

But not everyone is equally adept at telling the difference between good art and bad art.

Yet having said this, the arts need to be open to everyone, and should not be seen as a pursuit reserved for a select few. Art gets more and more warped and out of touch with what the average person finds beautiful when it has fewer regular folk participating in it or when it has some unnatural method of being kept alive. When the government or the multi-millionaire is financing the art, it rarely represents what the average person likes, and it degenerates into what is ugly and unappealing.

In the realm of the visual arts, for example, the average person who signs up for a painting class wants to do a pretty picture of flowers or a country scene. Mrs. So-and-so doesn’t sign up for splatter-painting or whatever it’s called. She figures that you don’t need to pay money to learn how to make a mess.

It’s natural for people to want to create things that are beautiful. It’s only when they get ‘advanced’ that artists want to create things that are ugly.

When children draw, for instance, they are doing their best to represent reality, or an idealized reality. Andrew Pudewa said girls draw nouns and boys draw verbs. The girls therefore draw horses or unicorns while the boys draw speeding cars and explosions. Their tools and ability might be amateur, but their aims are pure and distinct: they aim at accuracy, not distortion.

I once saw a group of children each take their turn at standing at the front of a classroom, holding their picture, having to answer the question, “What would you like to improve about your drawing?” And each of them, with one exception, said that he or she wanted to learn how to make something look more realistic. They wanted to make a more believable tree, bird or person. No child said he wanted to learn how to make something look more abstract.

As for the exception, well, that was funny. This girl, who was maybe about 5 years old, held up a picture of a horse and some people walking along the bottom edge of the page.

Teacher: “What do you like about your drawing?”
Girl: “Everything.”
Teacher: “And what would you like to improve?”
Girl: “Nothing.”

So I’m not saying art is only to be done by those who are ‘good enough.’ Certainly, more people should be actively engaged in art. Producing art is enjoyable and a mode of human expression. It’s too bad that our idea of experts prevents the average person from enjoying it to the full.

Nevertheless, not all art is equally good, and art can be evaluated for its quality. Moreover, I will even say that art intended for public consumption should be evaluated, because life is short, and you can only read a finite number of books in your life, and see a finite number of movies. It’s good to know what’s better. Hopefully, you’ll find a reliable source of information. But even more important than the time factor is the fact that art changes you; good art changes you for the better and bad art changes you for the worse. Sure, the change can be really small, but it’s there. And the human brain (or soul) doesn’t have a ‘delete’ button; the bad stuff lingers a lot longer than it should.

Such are my thoughts.

Too many thoughts, by book-club standards.

The atmosphere of a book club is supposed to be open and friendly and light-hearted. You’re with a group of women and presumably one of these women has suggested reading the book in question. She’s hoping that the other ladies will enjoy it. It’s supposed to be a pleasant night out, and the host has shined up her home and set out tea cups and wine glasses (there’s nothing like expecting a bunch of ladies to motivate a woman to shine the sink and wipe the doorknobs). Everyone is supposed to get along and socialize, have some dignified conversation, drink some wine, eat some goodies, laugh and go home, feeling enlightened and literate.

I know the drill.

But . . .

But what if I hate the book? What if I hate the book and I can’t stand the author’s agenda (all authors have one, for better or worse) and what if I can’t stand how he’s done it and what if I hate the way nobody can see or seems to mind what he’s trying to do and what if I can’t stand how everyone thinks this book is so edgy and clever when really it’s so lame?

What exactly am I supposed to do? “Excuse me, Miss Hostess, do you happen to have a pillow that I could borrow? Oh great, thanks. I’ll just go and scream in it until you ladies are done praising the book.”

Okay, all done!

Could you please pass the dip?

I know, I know. There’s a middle ground here somewhere, a way to do this well. In fact, I am sure there’s a saintly way to do it.

Hey, maybe I could bring St. Josemaria Escriva along to such a meeting. He’ll endear me to my liberal-minded friends when he say this:

Books. Don’t buy them without advice from a Catholic who has real knowledge and discernment. It’s so easy to buy something useless or harmful.

How often a man thinks he is carrying a book under his arm, and it turns out to be a load of trash.

The Way, No. 339

They’ll never forget us. They’ll call him the book-burning fanatic. “Did you hear him? He called this book ‘trash!’ Doesn’t he realize it’s a New York Times Best-Seller?”

And if you’re thinking that things would be better if I were the one choosing the book, I must say that there’s a wrinkle with that, which goes something like this:

Unsuspecting Friend: “I don’t know. I wasn’t really that excited about it.”
Me (looking astonished): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Well, I just don’t know about this G.K. Chesterton fellow.”
Me (looking alarmed): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “I’m just not sure if he really works for me.”
Me (looking aghast): “What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Maybe we could try someone else.”
Me (looking appalled):“What?!”
Unsuspecting Friend: “You know, someone a bit more . . .”
Me (looking green): “What?!”

And I can’t say that I enjoy that ‘noble’ book club called a Bible study group very much either. Now of course the bible is great and encyclicals (also the basis for some study groups) are really rich and amazing, but I don’t like looking at them with friends. I always get squirmy. “Are we done yet?” I want to keep the people, but replace that workbook and all its dry questions with a plate of nachos.

Conferences are tricky too, even if they feature, in theory, good Christian speakers talking about good Christian things. Like my friends, I’ve paid the registration fee, and I’m full of expectation. But by the time the presentation is done, and the audience is clapping, they’re satisfied and I’ve got a litany of criticisms. I try to act normal as we walk out of the conference room – you know, trying not to let my eyes bulge out too much. My friends are saying how much they’ve enjoyed it while I’m coaching myself: “Don’t speak, don’t speak, don’t speak.” But inevitably, someone turns to me and says, “Wasn’t that great? What did you think?”

The internal circuits start firing madly, but still, I hang on, valiantly. To speak or not to speak? Dare I start? What if I can’t stop? Where do I start?

And lest you think I have absolutely no self control, I’ll tell you that there have been times when I have deflected the question.

“Hey, look, an airplane!”

But then there are the other times. There are the times when I provide ‘the list.’

Unsuspecting Friend: “But why didn’t you like it?”
Me: “Well, if you must know, here’s an itemized breakdown of all of my issues with the presentation.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Oh.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “That’s a lot of issues.”
Me: “Yeah.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Well I thought it was a nice presentation.”
Me: “Well, you’re wrong.”
Unsuspecting Friend: “Excuse me?”
Me: “Wrong. You. You’re wrong. It was no good.”
Unsuspecting Former Friend: “So you’re saying that you know better than me as to what’s a good presentation?”
Me: “Yup.”
Unsuspecting Former Friend: “Alrighty.”

Okay, so it doesn’t happen exactly like this. I don’t say, “You’re wrong,” but you could say that there’s a very strong suggestion that I might be thinking that.

So the truth is that I really think twice about attending conferences, and often I don’t go.

Mind you, it doesn’t always happen this way. Sometimes I really, really like a presentation or a performance or author or work. I get really excited, and I will provide anyone within a radius of 200 meters a copy of my itemized breakdown of everything that I loved about it.

WiseOne wondered aloud whether it’s a case of always holding an extreme opinion.

WiseOne: So you either really love something or you really dislike it?
Me: Well, not exactly. I could probably sometimes give a score of 7 out of 10.
WiseOne: Mm-hmm.
Me: Sometimes.
WiseOne: Mm-hmm.
Me: Well, not often, but it does happen. Or sometimes I might give it like a 4.
WiseOne: How about a 5?
Me: What?
WiseOne: A 5. Do you ever give a 5?
Me: A 5?
WiseOne: Yes, like right in the middle.
Me: How do you give a 5? Who gives a 5? You mean, like you’re not sure?
WiseOne: Yes, or like you don’t care.
Me: No! Of course not! I never give a 5!
WiseOne: Yes, that’s what I thought.
Me: But sometimes I could give a 4. That’s kind of like a 5. Does that count?
WiseOne: And you probably would give a 6.
Me: Yes, maybe a 6.
WiseOne: But never a 5.
Me: Well, no. What really is a 5?
WiseOne: 5 is medium, right in the middle.
Me: Medium?



So this is how things stand.

Some would say that such a person is opinionated. The thing about being opinionated is that it means you care about things. If you don’t care about an issue, you won’t have a strong opinion about it. The more things you care about, the more opinions you’ll have. I care about issues related to morality and about literary things and visual things. Crayons, for instance, have issues which are visual and literary and arguably moral, and so I have opinions about them.

But on other things, such as fractions or furnace filters, I’ll be fairly neutral. I bet if you gave me a questionnaire about such things, I could probably give out a lot of 5s. A lot. It would be like this:


Yeah, that would be me.


I’d be just so middle-of-the-road, so dispassionate and level that you’d think 5 is my favorite number. No, let me correct myself: you’d think I didn’t even have a favorite number, that’s how neutral I’d be.

Mind you, if the furnace filter is dirty, this would become a visual issue, and I’ll have an opinion. And arguably, this becomes a moral issue, because is it not the case that it is our duty to regularly replace the filter? Do people have a moral obligation to maintain their household appliances? Is this not an aspect of fully appreciating the gift of home? Yet wouldn’t proper maintenance of all our household appliances to the standards set out in the operating manuals involve the neglect of every other aspect of our life? And certainly people are not to become the servants of their possessions?

(Imagine if we only kept the number of appliances we were able to properly maintain! What if appliances had policemen who would come and confiscate the appliances that you don’t take care of? In that case, we probably would neglect our other responsibilities just to save our things.)

But anyway, where was I?

Right – I was thinking about the role of an opinionated person in a book club.

I think I know.

The opinionated person should be the designated driver.

I’ll drop you off.

Have a nice time.

Enjoy the wine and tell them I said hello.