From Island Books’ blog:
A month or so ago two young women came up to the counter, copies of A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas in hand, and I asked, “Oh, are you reading the same book?”
“Yes,” one of them answered. “We heard this is really good. A book club for two!” I smiled (not that you could see it under my mask), agreed that it would be a fun book to read with a friend, and rang them up.
I loved their enthusiasm and how excited they were to read a book together, just the two of them. It’s a different kind of beast, the book club of two, or buddy reading, as I’ve also heard it called. There’s a flexibility inherent in it that traditional book clubs usually can’t accommodate. You only have one other person to consider when you make the rules, so you can say things like, “I didn’t finish, can we push some of it to the next time?” Or, “what the heck is going on here?”
My first experience with a book club for two was in my early thirties when a friend and I decided to read a classic together. We wanted a book neither of us had read but felt like we should have. At the book store we pulled out possibilities, and finally settled on A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I’d tried Dickens before, first because I was assigned it in college courses, and then in fits of literary self improvement. But I always found it to be a slog, the language too impenetrable to actually sympathize with any of the characters. I would force my way through, because I was not the abandoner of books that I am now, and come away with the vague satisfaction of finishing what I’d started and only the most cursory knowledge of the plot. A Tale of Two Cities would be a challenge.
We decided on a certain number of chapters and met weekly to discuss our portion of reading, usually over breakfast or lunch out. For me, it was a revelation to read this way. I wasn’t getting graded, it wasn’t an assignment, but I did have some accountability to actually read what I said I would, and permission to stop after a set number of pages. Suddenly I could slow down and submerge myself in the language. I believe Dickens was getting paid by the word, so there was a lot of language to splash around in. I still remember his phrase “the piscatory air” from the beginning chapters. I could ask questions about what was happening with the plot, with the characters, and be asked questions in return, all of which deepened my understanding and appreciation for the book. I went from avoiding Dickens to loving him, and read, on my own, many of his other books, which I’d avoided before. When James told me The Luminaries by Eleanor Cotton is Dickensian in feel, I even stretched to reading that.
Once we conquered A Tale of Two Cities, we sought out more unread classics. Memorable titles included The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and Villette by Charlotte Bronte, with it’s highly debatable, in my opinion, ending. With each I had this particular experience of being able to slow down and really sit with the words and the story, or argument in the case of Mere Christianity. There’s a specific quality to a book you read and discuss in this way. It’s similar to how I’ve felt about poems I had to take apart and write about for essays, or pieces of classical music I played back in my orchestra days. That in lingering through a piece of literature, talking about it, the story and the characters belongs to you in a way that makes it a part of you. You’ve made it yours and it’s made you theirs. And I think additionally, the fact that you are not alone, because you’re experiencing it with another person, it becomes a part of your relationship with them as well. A shared point of contact between the two of you.
In reading any book I’ve always been aware of the distance between the relationship the writer has to their work and the relationship the reader has to the story. The writer has a purpose and intention and they do their best to convey that to us as the reader. But we each bring our particular lens to the experience of reading. Our history, our beliefs, our unconscious filters all influence our interaction with the story. So reading a piece of literature with someone else, slowly and thoughtfully, brings an expansion of understanding to the work. You get the benefit of their lens, just as they get the benefit of yours. It is unique.
Currently I’m reading Middlemarch by George Eliot with Kelleen, four chapters every two weeks. Sometimes they aren’t the most exciting, and nothing much happens. But other times a lot is going on and it’s very interesting. My previous reading of Middlemarch was in my mid-twenties. I remember nothing about it except that it took me a year to read because I was so bored, and finally got through by forcing myself to read a chapter a night. But lately, I thought I might like to try it again, see if a few decades would make a difference to my experience. And Kelleen wanted to read it again after racing through it in college, so we agreed to make our own book club for two. We talk on FaceTime and read out the lines we think are funny or discuss how the young men seem to have very idealized ideas of women and marriage (I think they are in for rude awakenings) and our confusion over whatever the political aspects are that influence the characters. So far I am most impressed by Eliot’s ability to lay bare the humanity of her characters, in a way that is not censorious but understanding. And what strikes me is that people haven’t changed, despite the modern times, we are not that different underneath than Dorothea and Causabon, Mr. Brooke and Will Ladislaw, Rosamund and Lydgate.
For me, a book club for two works best to give me accountability to read something that I want to read but is more challenging. My natural reading tendency is to find out what happens at a breakneck pace. Not all books shine with that treatment, Middlemarch include
If there’s a book you’ve been wanting to read, either a reach or something for fun, and you just need a little push, consider asking a friend to read it with you. Create your own book club for two!