Whenever I’m asked to join a book club, I can’t say no. It’s not a politeness handicap, it’s a preference. I love book clubs. Want to come and talk about books? Yes, please! I’ve always identified as a reader, ever since my tiny clumsy fingers opened The Berenstain Bears. And now I’m a member of six different book clubs.
To be fair, two of those book clubs are not currently meeting. One is just a downloadable Word file of all the books Rory Gilmore mentioned reading in seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, and yet another is just me finding out what my 12 year-old niece is reading so I can read it too (I call it the secret bonding book club.)
For many, reading is surrounded by guilt. Lately I’m meeting less than half of my book club requirements, and the guilt is incredible. The problem with telling anyone that you like to read is that they immediately want to know if you’ve read the same things that they’ve read. And after they list off a whole bunch of books that sound as familiar as Latin names for flowers you feel like a complete failure. You begin to wonder, have I ever read anything?
The world is full of books and there is always a stack to read. Read in the spaces of time you have after work, before friends, in between meals; the spaces of time getting smaller and smaller. Guilt! You can never read enough.
This is why last year I started to learn how to surrender. NPR blog writer Linda Holmes’ essay on the “sad, beautiful fact that we’re all going to miss almost everything” was a game-changer for me. In it, Holmes advises a process of culling and surrendering.
Culling is something most of us already do. It’s what book clubs do when they select the books they want to read. Which are the books to which you choose to devote your time? If you think Bukowski was a sexist jerk, throw him off your shelf! If you loved Jennifer Egan’s last book, pick up her next one. Finding, selecting, choosing.
Surrendering is harder. It’s, basically, the ability to say, I can’t possibly. But also—and this part’s more difficult—there’s no shame in letting go. Holmes says, “It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.”
Surrendering means recognizing that there are too many books. There are endless numbers of books, added to every day, that could contain something you might love. You can’t read them all, even if you identify as being “well-read.”
Here’s my guilt-free confession: I haven’t read David Byrne’s How Music Works. The show is Saturday and I haven’t read it, won’t read it, simply don’t have the time. But the best thing about book club is this: there are at least thirteen other people who have. And those thirteen other people will take the stage with thoughts and ideas and (bonus!) songs to share.
I love Holmes’ final thought on the process of culling and surrendering:
“If ‘well-read’ means ‘not missing anything,’ then nobody has a chance. If ‘well-read’ means ‘making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,’ then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.”