It’s about 9:00 PM, and now that my kids have finally fallen asleep, the rest of the evening is open. On this particular night, I’ve been looking forward to starting a new book. So I curl up on the couch, wrap a blanket around me, and open my Kindle. Now there’s only one thing left to do before I can begin reading.
“Ready for chapter one?” I tap out in Facebook Messenger.
The response is almost immediate: “Yes, let’s go!”
And with that, I turn my attention back to the first chapter, knowing that 2300 miles away, the other half of this book club a deux is reading the same words right along with me.
Many people think of reading only as a solitary act, and that’s never more obvious than when I try to explain my new hobby. From raised eyebrows to outright scorn, my extremely unscientific poll has verified that nobody reads and discusses books in real time. I suppose that’s not a huge surprise, given that most people envision reading as a mutual relationship between the reader and the words on the page to help bring the story to life. What need is there to upset this perfect harmony by adding another voice?
Even my husband, who usually tolerates my quirks with polite silence, recently wondered whether this was a new level above my usual English major nerdery. This, coming from someone who, back when we were still in the wooing stage of our relationship (sixteen years, several career changes, and hundreds of diapers ago), suggested that we read a book out loud together as a way to bolster our fledgling relationship. I’m sure he got the idea from some men’s magazine that this would be a (simple) way to kindle some romance.
So we dutifully cuddled up and took turns reading about the ever-so-amorous Civil War. A word of advice: if you want to get cozy with your honey on a cold night, don’t try to warm her up with The Red Badge of Courage, which is about a young man who desperately wants to be maimed by enemy fire to prove he isn’t a wimp. I’m pretty sure there’s still a dusty bookmark permanently stuck on page 22. But don’t worry: although it may be surprising, we were somehow able to think of other ways to fan our flames.
Other couples may have had more success in the romantic read-aloud area than we did, but overall the actual act of reading is most often done alone, even if traditional book clubs abound. And let’s face it: the stereotype of book-club-as-social-club, giving women an excuse to get together and drink wine, exists for a reason. After all, wine makes anything go down better. Maybe even 19th century war porn.
Book clubs actually got their start in the US back in Victorian times when women sought a reason to get together with their friends in their spare time while the menfolk were out dominating the land and such (not that there was much time to spare in between beating their rugs). Unfortunately, reading was discouraged in women; it was believed by some (namely, Freud) that reading would give them “ideas.” Ideas like how it was much more enjoyable to spend the afternoon 20,000 leagues under the sea rather than scrubbing floors, no doubt.
Even though I’m always looking for a reason to avoid scrubbing floors, I’ve never belonged to a traditional book club, unless you count the fact that I’m an English teacher. And what is a literature class but a glorified book club, right? That is, if your book club had one dictator that chooses all the books as well as leads every discussion, if you risk getting publicly shamed for not having read the book, or if you’re tested on the material at a later date. Also, there also seems to be a very noticeable lack of wine at these gatherings. Come to think of it, I’m starting to understand why some people hate reading in general and English classes in particular.
Not only is reading solitary and boring, now we also see that it’s too much work, too, and not only in the read-a-classic-to-get-smarter way. But reading doesn’t usually begin that way. Most of us loved to listen to books read out loud to us before we could read, and then we learned to read by haltingly sounding out “I am Sam” to the delight (and perhaps relief, as the case may be) of our parents. Children seem to take a natural joy in reading out loud to and for others. But for the most part, once we’re able to read by ourselves, we almost always do.
Even though people tend to read fewer books together as they get older, they watch more TV and movies together. However, I’d argue that these activities are even less social that reading. Think about it: not only do people face a screen instead of each other, it’s usually considered bad manners to discuss a movie while it’s playing in a theater. Yet somehow, going to a movie is a standard date, as if sitting in the dark beside someone for two hours can somehow convey a sense of compatibility (if you both enjoy thrillers, it must be true love!). But because of these conventions, it’s also become socially acceptable for people who are in long distance relationships to connect with each other by Skyping or messaging each other while watching their favorite shows.
My sister and her best friend do this often, as they live across the country from each other and virtually meet up to spend the evening together on a regular basis. Once they decide on a television show, they both start them up and watch together, each of them on their respective TV sets. As they watch, they periodically text each other about what they’re watching. My sister says that doing an activity together helps them feel like they are still part of each other’s everyday lives and also gives them an excuse to talk for hours. It’s also much cheaper than a plane ticket.
It makes sense that in our busy lives, we need new ways to spend time with each other. Distance separates friends and lovers all the time, and technology helps overcome these absences better every day. And while watching TV with someone else may seem like the easiest way to hang out with someone you’re missing, I’d suggest that the act of reading together in real time can enhance the experience for each person involved.
My phone chimes with a notification. “Next chapter?”
“Definitely,” I respond.
And so we make our way through the paragraphs, pausing every few minutes as the mood strikes to look up from our reading and comment on a poignant passage or wonder why a character made a certain choice. As a bonus, there’s no need for us to remember what we read for later discussions. Anything that pops into our minds as we read becomes fair game for our chats.
As it turns out, even though we don’t use formal discussion questions or try to interpret the main themes of the books we read, we still end up making connections anyway. Not only are we making meaning with the text but also with each other in a three-way relationship. It’s fun to be on the same page as someone else, and taking the time not only to visualize the plots and characters but also gain another perspective on them heightens the experience for both of us. And just like my sister and her friend, it’s an excuse to chat while doing something we already enjoy. Add some wine (because it’s still a book club, albeit a small one, right?) and it’s the perfect way to spend an evening alone with somebody else.
So if you’re looking for an activity that will help you keep in touch with someone, I’d suggest you start reading together. It may not be exactly by the book, but it will probably be the most effortless ménage à trois you’ll ever try.