Book club culture: What happens when shy people try to interact socially

Hi, peoples. I wrote this article when I was still trying to brand myself as a lit fic writer, so it’s different than my normal happy-go-lucky YA blogging style. It’s still funny, though!

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What is culture? I guess you could define it as high-brow, artsy stuff, but the sociologist in me thinks of this concept more as it applies to society—a cohesive unit in which the members work together for their own individual benefit or to benefit the society as a whole.

In this way, “book club culture” is something of an oxymoron.

You see, a book club is a very unique entity. Think about the types of people that are driven to participate in literary discussion groups—go ahead and form a picture in your mind. This person is probably wearing glasses, carrying a book crooked under her arm, walking with her head pointed toward the ground, and giving you an awkward smile as she passes by.

The stereotypical book club member is a socially stunted introvert. I’m allowed to say this with the utmost confidence, because I am this stereotype. That shy awkward girl that just formed as a pixilated picture in your mind, she is me. I’m such a book club geek that I’ve even started my own discussion group, which now has over four-hundred and fifty members, so yeah, I know a thing or two.

Now I want to tell you a bit about this ludicrous concept, about how a group can form of members who all mostly just want to be left alone. This is what book club culture looks like, folks:

We want people to listen to us, but we don’t want them to look at us—Most members fix their eyes firmly on the table in front of them or address their comments solely to the leader of the discussion. We’ve put in the hard work of reading the book, and we want to get the most out of discussion that we possibly can. To that end, everyone is clamoring to have his or her voice heard. Listen to my words, friend, but don’t look at my face. I’m more than my face; I’m also this brilliant mind.

We have a burning need to showcase our intelligence for the others—Each book club discussant has already dedicated hours to reading and researching the featured book prior to discussion. To that end, we’ve all had a lot of time to think about the novel, its themes, and what we’re going to say about it. Due to our desperate need to show off, we also tend to take wild and crazy tangents. Gee, I know PETA’s not exactly relevant to Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” but I just know so much about it; I know the others definitely want to hear about it, so here goes…

We’re proud of ourselves for doing something so valuable with our time—We are the elite intellectuals. We know the value of a Saturday afternoon spent snuggled up with a classic Russian novel is much higher than the value of a Saturday afternoon spent outdoors in the park or at the movie theater with friends. We definitely judge others for not having it as together as we do. That couple walking their dog past the coffee shop window, that teenager browsing the book store’s music collection, that barista working her 11-7 shift—none of them are doing anything that’s anywhere near the same level of importance as this—reading and then talking about books.

We have a hard time talking about the issues without offending someone—Well, clearly we have to talk about the holocaust when discussing Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” and we simply must discuss race as it relates to Toni Morrison’s “Bluest Eye.” Unfortunately, since most of us don’t have the best social skills, we have a hard time discussing these pertinent issues without going too far and becoming offensive. It’s something of a catch-22, perhaps if we were better at dealing with people, we’d be able to get through discussion without somebody vowing eternal hatred for somebody else, but if our social skills were to improve, we might actually spend time engaging with other people in our day-to-day lives, which would seriously cut into reading time.

We all want to be the leader, but none of us are effective in this role—Listen to me; it’s my turn to talk. That’s very nice, but now it’s my turn to talk. Let me talk about X. In response to X, I’ll say Y—it’s true Y has nothing to do with X, but it’s my turn now. Have you ever had a sideways discussion with someone? This happens when you’re talking about one thing and your “conversation” partner is talking about something completely different. You both keep up your own end of the conversation, but you’re not really engaging with each other. Book club is sideways talking to the extreme. It’s true that most of our discussion points will be somewhat related within the larger context of the work we’re discussing, but otherwise it’s all over the map. Each person wants to lead the discussion in the direction that she sees best fit; few are willing to give up their chance to steer the conversation back to their favorite topic—themselves.

All facetiosity aside, I love book club. I’ve been leading my own group for over three years now, but my heart still races and my palms still drip with sweat every time I’m in group. I continue to leave each discussion with a vague sense of having said something wrong and a persistent worry that somebody may not have liked me. One can’t ever really overcome these in-built introverted tendencies, but it gets easier to fake it on the outside.  Book club will help the more apt introverts to improve their social skills, but some cases are completely hopeless.

If you’re itchin’ to jump on the book club bandwagon, check out my 5-part series on how to start or join a book club.

UPDATE:  So I wrote this article about a year ago, and all of it was true. Most of it still is true. However, the group has evolved over the past year, and I must give them credit for being much better about not offending each other. I’ve been truly impressed. We’re growing. My own shyness is also receding further and further into the background, and I know owning my own business (Novel Publicity) is the reason for that. In fact, I think I will write a blog post about how social media helped me overcome my shyness. Keep an eye out for that.

*This article was originally published on A2politico.com when yours truly served the role as “Culture Vulture” columnist.

Mrs. Storm

Writing everything from Sweet Romance to Children's Books to Nonfiction, Melissa loves books, birds, and bonbons--in that order. She has an advanced degree that she never uses.

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