Friday morning, I got up at 5:45 am to shower, get dressed, make tea, sit on the couch and call America. The phone rang four times before I heard a familiar voice pick up. I was soon on speaker phone listening to my girlfriends cheering because I had “joined them” for book club night.
Seeing that I’m now about 3,800 miles away as the crow flies from my book club, I am more of an honorary member, with rights to drop in on occasion. As most who are in book clubs will tell you, the experience is not only about reading a book together, but about being there with your friends. There is something deeply bonding about breaking bread, drinking wine, and discussing how the work of fiction or non-fiction moved you, or not. It is also an opportunity to listen to the stories that emerge in response to the reading, deepening your understanding of each other; I didn’t know you lived in a funky loft in the bay area where you lead monthly poetry slams; Really? You have a fraternal twin? I had no idea you’ve interviewed so many famous authors, including the one we’re now reading. And on top of this, our club is committed to cooking organic dishes from food within a 100 mile radius whenever possible; ingredients fresh from the back yard harvest or local farmer’s market (exceptions always made for wine and chocolate).
In this context, my international call into book club may seem a little sad, like a bone thin fashion model walking into the room just before Thanksgiving meal is served to inhale the sumptuous smells and leave again, without so much as a fork full or sip of wine; like trying to hold onto happier times. Yet, it was perhaps the most appropriate time to phone from abroad in search of happiness and connection. This group of women sitting around a candlelit table in Sonja’s house had just read Geography of Bliss, by NPR correspondent Eric Weiner. The book is about Weiner’s travels to nine countries that have been deemed by psychologists and economists as some of the happiest places on earth, and his investigation into what makes these particular people, or cultures, happy. The first country in the book? The Netherlands. You can see why I had to have this one last fling with book club.
I couldn’t locate a copy in the biblioteek (library) or the boekhandel (bookstore), so ordered a used copy online which was sent over from England, a country that didn’t make the happiness list.
I started the book the night it arrived, feeling rather special to be reading the chapter on the Netherlands in the Netherlands. Did you know that the World Database of Happiness is located in Rotterdam, just thirty minutes away from where I now sit? It seems the Dutch are really into happiness. But I was quickly annoyed by the shallow picture Weiner painted of my husband’s homeland, suggesting that legal prostitution, drugs and fervor for cycling were primary keys to understanding Dutch happiness. Although I got his point, it was clear to me there is so much more to it. Yet, in his defense, how much can one person tap into the soul of a nation’s happiness in a two week visit?
As I read further about countries like Bhutan and Iceland, I found his insights on happiness to be eye opening, and I soon found myself underlining passages here and there. Because as any fine reporter would do within the freedom of their own book, he backed up his musings and criticisms with facts, research and quotes from numerous other books on the topic of happiness.
I wonder what one would discover if they traveled across the world researching the happiness one gains by being in a book club. The right book club can be an until-death-do-us-part experience. Take my mother-in-law, for example. She was in a book club for years. But when one of the members died, the group came to an end, as they were just too sad to go on without their dear friend. Another book club I know in Santa Barbara has also been meeting for years, and these women of all different ages, are a sisterhood of support that rallies behind their members through thick and thin, having emergency book clubs when a sister is in need. I dearly miss my book club and the pure happiness this group of women brought into my life every four to six weeks.
What is so special about this particular configuration? It’s not like a group discussion of a story is a new concept. That has been around since the beginning, both in oral traditions and as part of our written education system. I think what makes the book club movement so powerful is that you have a very personal, solitary experience of reading a book and then voluntarily bring that experience to a group. Not just any group, but a group you trust. The book transforms into something much bigger, as each person brings their unique perspective and opinions to light. And trust is key to happiness, as Weiner points out. If you are surrounded by people you trust, then you are more likely to be happy. If you are surrounded by people you trust, who have made a commitment to read a book, cook an organic dish, purchase a bottle of wine, and meet up with you to have a heartfelt conversation, you become a bit of a contemporary tribe.
Sure. Sometimes book clubs don’t get around to the book, but a discussion still unfolds. The bonds grow deeper.
Now as I write about book club, I know why I felt a rush of excitement at church a month ago when a woman announced a book group forming at the church. I wanted to be book happy again, in a book club way. Thing is, although my Dutch is coming along swimmingly, I barely understood her announcement.
A book club, like a quality relationship, is something that can’t be rushed. You have to find the right group of people, whom you would like to potentially see for the rest of your life. A group of individuals you relate to and trust. Perhaps another book club will emerge. In the meantime, I will still fancy myself a member of that great group of women back home, and drop in on them from time to time.