The frenetic twelve days before Christmas are now a thing of the past. The gift? Recuperation. Four days of doing nothing but the things that I love: reading & desktop publishing. But blasted! I inadvertently find myself circling my table laden with cookies and sweets; nibbling upon the hyperglycemic mother lode. Most days I limit these items for my sons but currently I am encouraging them to partake. The faster these items disappear; the faster my normal eating habits return.
I have found a new muse in Malcolm Gladwell; the author of the books: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw & his recent release, David & Goliath. Just as Michael Pollan is to food; Malcolm Gladwell is to cultural epidemics & sociology. I love when books inspire and make me re-think the status quo and both of these authors deliver. I have recently discovered that I am a fan of non-fiction and memoirs. I used to consider the romance genre as my true love; no pun intended. This is the joy of reading. A good writer draws you into topics I would never have explored before.
As I considered what my book choice would be for bookclub in February; much to my surprise, Gladwell discussed bookclubs in The Tipping Point. I’ve often wondered how they have originated and what purposes they serve.
Years ago when approached to join a newly formed group; I was a mother with three young sons and a deployed husband. I had no time to read books; my days filled with the details of entertaining and feeding mouths of rambunctious children. It was rare that I had a moment to myself and I laughed outright, one day, when I clocked my shower time at less than five minutes; worrying that my youngest son would get into something. The only books I read were parenting ones to glean information, normally passed down from mother-to-daughter.
My mother, at the time, lived in a locked assisted living facility and pondered how it was that I was her daughter. I was her long lost sister and she was stuck at age 16. Who are these kids? she’d ask as she gazed at my middle son. She died a month after his first birthday believing he was her youngest brother; angry at her mother for having her tenth child.
But at the insistence of my neighbor I was given the number to a babysitter; something I rarely used. I fretted. I couldn’t leave my three sons for two hours! This neighbor lived directly behind me; the other around the corner. The first book I read was not inspiring. Though most people enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love I gritted my teeth. I gave up time and two hours to read this? And here I am seven years later….
Bookclubs were the example Gladwell used of the role they can play in social epidemics; the power of context. When an idea, in this case, a book, resonates and “sticks;” the group has the power to increase its audience by word-of-mouth or sheer numbers. As obvious as this seems; what really drives trends or bestsellers isn’t about the numbers. A book or idea generates buzz because of the dynamics of the group; of human interaction. Great ideas and books exist in the every day; but it is in the propogation of discussion in social groups, like book clubs or individuals like connectors, mavens and salesmen, which spark personal experiences and generate conversations. Voila! A trend is born. Who knew vampires and werewolves would spark Twilight hysteria or that Fifty Shades of Grey would engage the parent demographic; dubbed Mommy Porn?
I have never, truly, appreciated the power of a social group until reading this short chapter. I was baffled, years ago, when other moms snidely commented on our bookclub as a social clique. It was then that I questioned the purpose of these groups. Exclusivity? Social clique? Wasn’t the purpose of a bookclub to discuss books and have academic discussion? I have since realized that social groups form for a variety of reasons. I have been involved in two book clubs; both similar and different. A simple definition, surely, could not define the bookclub dynamic.
Some groups are academic; focused on the text at hand. Bookclubs originated hundreds of years before; by scholarly men to propagate reading and discussion about government and politics. Women began to create reading groups to learn at a time when females did not have access to formal education. Many religious groups form studies; whether it is on the Koran, the Torah or Bible, to propagate ideas and conversation. It paved the way for social progress and higher learning; cultivating good taste.
Yet other bookclubs are primarily social; a way to get out of the normal circumstances (work, school, parenting) for leisure and escapism. Wines and desserts line countertops; hors d’oeuvres showcased from Pinterest. Books sit idly while bookclubbers chat about their lives; loosely connecting it with the chosen book. This opens the doors for varied discussions, behind closed doors, with the complicit agreement that all things remain confidential. What goes on in bookclub, stays in bookclub.
How to blend the two? The Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken” comes to mind.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I– I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
Being involved in a defined group made me discover the complexities of a social dynamic; outside of the nuclear family and a few, choice friends. Usually the members draw from the same demographic: fellow co-workers, classmates, friends. The synapses of my neocortex are starting to fire; the part of our brains that make humans unique. The size of the neocortex is not due to intelligence. It is based on the capacity of networking in groups.
Currently I am working on my skills of hospitality; which include socializing. It is a learned skill and to some it comes naturally; to others, it is a chore. To be a good social host one needs to understand the group dynamic; to juggle diverse personalities and cultures. This involves interaction and observation; which involves a lot of time and attention.
Most people do not cultivate this due to time constraints. I, myself, am guilty. In a group of ten women I must understand my relationship to the the other nine. Then, I must keep track of each of the nine women’s relationships with one another. And so, involving myself in a book club of ten women has me keeping tabs on a total of 90 two-way relationships; 81 from the nine others and nine of my own. Did you get all that?
The power of the group increases when the group knows each other well. This creates an implicit joint memory which psychologist Daniel Wegner calls transactive memory. This implies that the relationships are intimate; just as in a marriage or family. In a marriage or family it is realized that certain people are more suited to remember facts than others. In my household I rely on my teenager to remember the WEP code for our wi-fi; my husband to remember details of house & car maintenance, my middle-son for all social details on our calendar and the youngest for obvious facts that I tend to overlook (like feeding the fish, dog, cat or the family LOL). There is only so much mental energy I can expend and so I remember those I need for necessity with a few extraneous details. I, then, rely on the memory of my family (or camera) to compensate.
A tipping point is a term used often in immunology, where an infectious event (the flu, AIDS) goes viral; spiraling out-of-control and becoming an epidemic. I embark on my own self-study with family as my control group and book club, my experimental. As a group we, too, can affect our environment; a sort of Utopia. In marriage or family there is no easy out. The contractual bonds of these institutions demand that we get along. But in something as simple as a bookclub we have the option to come and go. For do we not read books for pleasure? Why create rules and make things formal?
It is hospitality that I have vowed to work on in the new year. This skill is something I hope to someday master; for it is this ability that will allow me to reach my tipping point. Changing the littlest of things that can make the biggest of differences. When I die it is not the material things amassed that will matter; only the quality, depth and care of the people surrounding me. I am learning to invest my time, efficiently and attentively, in human relationships.
What defines a bookclub? It is not the books we read, the food we prepare and share. It is collective memories; the conversations and shared experiences, that define our purpose; our context. It is the aspirations to share and learn things, about other people, who normally would not have come together. Reading is the gateway to venture into territory we would never explore before.
Time to start reading.