When my students moved from sixth to seventh grade, they took the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test (MEAP). As their former teacher, I’d receive a copy of their performance. I compared my former students’ performance to that of other teachers’ students. The information helped in planning for the following year. One year, my students’ performance on the section of adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators was appalling. It was as if I’d not taught the skill at all. Yes, there were a few students who aced it, but they didn’t count. That sounds like a terrible thing for a teacher to say, but every year there were always a few Stephanies and Adams, academically gifted children who caught on no matter how poor the instruction. I couldn’t blame the textbook since it was the same for the whole district. I could have patted myself on the back that they’d scored well in most other areas, but I was an experienced teacher with no patience for mediocre performances.
The following year, I brought in apples and cut them into three, four, six, and eight sections. I asked the kids to add, let’s say, 1/4 of an apple and 2/3, of an apple? Immediately, a gifted boy’s hand was up. I signaled him, let’s give it more time. After a while, most of the students got it. You can’t add 1/4 and 2/3s because they have “unlike” denominators. Without a common denominator, it couldn’t be done. Well, perhaps Adam could, but this was not the time to explore other ways. The kids were ready to build on this knowledge. It made sense.
After surveying five thousand book clubs, BookBrowse.com found that 88% of private book clubs are all-women groups. Women are more social, so this was no earth-shattering news. Contrary to what most people think, BookBrowse found that the vast majority of the books were not “beach reading,” but books to learn from. Overwhelmingly, book club members wanted books that elicited good conversations.
When my enthusiasm for one of my three book clubs went into a slump, I suspected it wasn’t the company, but the structure we’d settled in. It was a feeling similar to the—less than stellar MEAP math outcome—followed by, what can I do to make it better? In my experience, most readers arrive at book clubs armed with points-of-views, convictions, and judgments. But like my students, we come with different denominators. The common denominator is our desire to spend time with women friends and end the night or day with a delicious dessert. But as much as I like sweets, the company and learning is the main course. Was there a way to improve our performance? On the heels of this thought, another suggests, perhaps you are the only woman feeling this way. Thoughts are tricky. They may tell you, oh, no, everyone agrees with you only for you to discover that nobody knows what the heck you are harping about.
With no MEAP results to guide me, help showed up after I agreed to join daughter, Rakel, to take advantage of an offer from masterclass.com, two join for the cost of one. With many choices to pick from, I signed up for Bobbie Brown’s make-up class. I learned that Bobbie doesn’t like foundations, thinks less is better, and how to upgrade my face in one minute. I concluded I needed more minutes. Bobbie didn’t offer suggestions for book clubs. But I didn’t expect it from her class or any other. I was wrong. Author Malcolm Gladwell’s course on writing offered insight, readers’ responsibilities when reading a book.
When the host makes the selection, often, she goes to great length in picking a book. Malcolm is of the view that readers have an equally important assignment —to read carefully. Instead of gulping it down days before meeting, take time to reflect on the author’s intentions, especially when reading historical fiction and nonfiction. The exceptions are books in the suspense genre that keep the reader on the edge of her seat. Asking the reader to stop and reflect would be cruel, like eating one M&M every twenty minutes.
When we read nonfiction and historical fiction, we keep in mind what is happening in that time and place. For example, the Lilac Girls, based on a true story of 72 Polish women imprisoned and experimented on at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. What resources did the author use to reconstruct history and build a narrative?
Hannah Kent, the author of Burial Rites, spent a year in Northern Iceland, a time she described as dark and lonely. Years later, to satisfy a degree requirement, she recalled the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1829), condemned to death for a crime she did or didn’t commit. The first pages of Hannah’s book show a map of where the crime took place, along with the pronunciation of the challenging Icelandic names. Taking time to read what the author provided, whether charts, prologue, or an epilog, prepares us like the cut-up apple prepared my students to understand the addition of mixed numbers. I rarely take the time to read knitting patterns in preparation for a new project; as a result, I frequently have to undo large sections, hours of work. But a little bit of patience before and during reading seems like a good idea.
Gladwell says our job as readers is not to criticize. There is no such thing as a reading critic, although plenty of book reviewers think differently. Criticizing and finding faults is the easiest job in the world. We can make any book sound terrible. Finding what makes the book good or great is a far higher calling. Our work is to point out what was worth our attention and to be enthusiastic. As a reader, we acknowledge what we learned and share our thought processes as they relate to the book or story.
What if I can’t stomach the book assigned? The founding members of a book club probably answer this question in the first few months as members drop out, and others join. A recent book I read for book club was, If You Tell, based on real events. Every page in the first half of the book had vivid descriptions of abuse. The critic in me shook with eagerness. That would have been the road most traveled. A more worthwhile effort was to ponder the author’s goal in selecting this family’s trauma. What were the characters’ motives for behaving as they did? Were there transition points where the characters made changes for the better or worse? And I could have shared a passage that captured my attention and analyzed the author’s tool to create an emotional response from the reader.
Reflecting on book discussions over the years, the most satisfying were those days or evenings when I walked away, feeling a deeper understanding and connection to the book and my friends. It’s where I learned to appreciate the conscientious book club members who came prepared and added new dimensions to the book’s content. Every new read is like a fresh class assignment, except no grade, so no Stephanie to compete with. On the other hand, halfway effort is like making a cake from a cake mix instead of from scratch. Not as satisfying.