What makes a good Book Club selection?
You’d think a book with great writing alone would do the trick. If it’s a novel, some memorable characters and a kicky plot are nice; if it’s non-fiction, something that tells a story that draws you in or that explains a concept remarkably well.
These are the things great books are made of. But are they what great Book Club selections are made of? I say, no.
The best Book Club selections are ones that get people thinking. And when people get thinking, its only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs — they’ll start arguing.
I belong to an unofficial Book Club consisting of two people, though a better way to describe our duo would be as a book debate club. We argue over everything possible to argue over in a book — writing style, characters, plot, the author’s premise, you name it. If we were to read a book with only ten pages, we’d argue bitterly over eight of the pages and then disagree as to why the other two were o.k. We can go on like this for hours. And every time we finish out a series or a book, we’re disconsolate until the next argument-sparking book comes along.
Despite our societal obsession with never offending anyone else under any possible circumstances, we are a people simply spoiling for a good, old-fashioned contretemps. This is probably the deep, dark secret of the lure of the Internet. On the Internet, we can be as nasty, as argumentative, as controversial as we’ve always privately longed to be. Just take a look at the comment section of any political site.
Much of what used to make life a neverending struggle for the humble Homo sapiens — the search for food, shelter, clothing, decent cell phone coverage — has been removed. Our government tells us what we should and shouldn’t eat. Medical knowledge has progressed to the point that we’ve moved into preventing diseases, not simply treating them. We’re busy agitating now for stuff like free healthcare, free contraception, free wi-fi access, for all people, everywhere. On the home front, there is practically nothing useful left to fight for. Which is why we spend so much time spatting over Balloon Boy’s dad and Octomom and the Birthers. The reason to fight may be gone, but the desire to fight remains, irrevocably encoded into the spiraly mystery that is our DNA.
Why should we bookish folk let the political brayers enjoy it all? I contend that arguing over books is the most fun anyone can possibly have without large amounts of alcohol and the authorities involved (though those three are certainly not mutually exclusive).
If all your Book Club reads are tomes that no one ever argues passionately over, no wonder why you guys are so bored. I’d suggest to you there’s a reason why no one is arguing passionately over them — they probably don’t contain much worth arguing over. Plenty of books are worth reading, but only a fraction of those are worth arguing about.
Harness your urge to engage in a fracas, Book Clubbers, and pick some books that will really get the fur flying at your next meeting. Here are 10 books from 2009 to get you started.
1. The Magicians – Lev Grossman
There don’t seem to be many middle-of-the-roaders when it comes to this book — people either hate it passionately or love it desperately. Just don’t fondly imagine that it’s nothing more than Harry Potter for Grownups. It’s much more than that.
2. Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests – Julian Baggini
Mr. Baggini (whose name I can never, ever read without instantly thinking “Nagini”) argues that the usefulness of complaining against really awful things like tyranny and injustice is debased by the habit we’ve fallen into of complaining about everything from our jobs to how things used to be better back in the day. This book is great to yammer about, not just because Mr. Baggini picks controversial examples to back up his theory, but because he manages to poke just about everybody — liberals, conservatives, Christians, Muslims — in the eye while doing so. If your group can’t get worked up about this book, you guys are either a bunch of Pacifists or zombies.
3. The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder – Stephen Elliott
Where to begin with this book? It’s part murder mystery and part personal confession with a hell of a lot of overlap between the two. Most true crime tomes keep the author firmly out of the picture and do their best to present an unbiased look at the characters involved. Mr. Elliott doesn’t even bother pretending to do this. Every aspect of the crime is seen through his perspective, heavily laced with lots of masochistic sex and alcohol and Adderall and unhappiness. It sounds awful, I know, but the result is incredible. Read this in your Book Club and you’ll find yourself arguing vehemently about things you never dreamt you’d be talking about in a Book Club. Definitely NOT a book for mother-daughter groups.
4. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability – David Owen
Try this quote on for size: “A sensitive person’s first reaction to the mounting evidence that Americans, especially young Americans, may be losing interest in directly experiencing the natural world is likely to be one of regret and loss, or even despair. But is it necessarily a bad thing, globally speaking? It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor recreational activites….” Mr. Owen’s Green Metropolis is an apologia of the greatness and greenness of the Big City, particularly — wait for it, wait for it — New York City. (Regular Book Examiner readers know that I am now rending my garments, tearing my hair, donning sackcloth and ashes, breaking out the potsherds, at yet ANOTHER reference to the City of Cities.) Suburban Book Clubs in particular should read this one. The fun part isn’t just freaking out at everything Mr. Owen says, but trying to poke holes in his reasoning.
5. Stitches: A Memoir – David Small
I’ve already enthused about this book in a Review Roundup post. It’s a lovely tome for a Book Club since you’ll end up discussing dysfunctional families and childhood trauma along with what makes a good graphic novel and whether graphic novels, especially ones of this caliber, should be considered literature. (Psst. They should.)
6. Generosity: An Enhancement – Richard Powers
Is there ANYBODY who doesn’t like to argue about whether or not the human genome should be tampered with? And if so, how much? To just cure disease? To prevent painful conditions? What about changing behaviors? Would it be acceptable if it made everyone happy all the time, even after their family was slaughtered? What’s nice about Generosity is that it deals with some hard science-y issues in a fictional setting so that those of you yonks who slept through biology in school can still get interested in the conversation.
7. Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading – Lizzie Skurnick
This book really should be a Ladies Book Club all by itself. It features dozens of snappy little essays about the books that girls of the late 60s, 70s, and 80s grew up reading, — from Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret to Jacob Have I Loved — but with an adult woman’s perspective. Get a bunch of ladies of a Certain Age around reading this — and re-reading all of those books they haven’t thought of for years — and you’ll never run out of things to jaw over. Take a look at a highly personal review of Shelf Discovery, here.
8. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future – Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum
I know it seems like I’ve included an awful lot of science-themed books on this list (and no wonder, considering I’m a science-y kind of gal), but the gap between scientific advances and the average person’s understanding and interest in science is enough to make a physicist weep. Unscientific America addresses this issue head-on and the authors aren’t afraid to make some pretty harsh statements. They are also fairly obvious (and sometimes, just a tad bit hoity) about their political and social leanings. If you can’t manage to get your Book Club worked up into a frenzy over any other book, this could be the tome you’re looking for.
9. A Friend of the Family – Lauren Grodstein
A Book Club just isn’t a Book Club without at least one depressing tome about a family falling apart and loss of innocence and all that. (Some Book Clubs read little else. And you know my opinions on innocence — it’s highly overrated.) A Friend of the Family fits that bill nicely, but there’s a lot more here to discuss and disagree over than your average family drama.
10. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America – Barbara Ehrenreich
Here’s some positive news for Book Clubs: this little tome about how the gleeful focus on positive thinking is basically killing us all and threatening to end the world as we know it offers multiple opportunities for free-for-all arguments. Those of us who have never been optimistic a single day in our entire lives won’t see what there is to fuss over, but the perky ones among your group will react to this book as they would to a leg amputation. Fun, fun, fun.
Indulge yourself in more bookish fun:
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The top 10 books people lie about reading (and the 10 authors they are actually reading)
Men are from Dune, women are from Pemberley? Leaping recklessly into the literary gender gap
30 authors whose works were rejected (repeatedly, and sometimes rudely) by publishers
50 best true crime books: truth stranger — and scarier — than fiction