Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Cookies, Beer, a Disembodied Head and Books: Your Average Book Club

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By Phil Miletic

I have never been a member of a book club — okay, I’ve been a member a reading group, yet this was in a university setting, so it was a tad different, even astronomically different if you consider that we just read one book (Finnegans Wake by Joyce) and never finished reading it, ever. (Why? Because you can never finish reading it, and anyone who has said they have is lying.) I mean book clubs outside of school. To be honest, I don’t know many book clubs, and the first book club that springs to mind — and Google’s too — is Oprah’s. This gives off the impression in many minds that book clubs are targeted towards a female demographic. And this is why, when I was introduced (electronically) to the Muskoka-based Golden Beach Men’s Book Club, I found it odd that a book club was an all male’s book club. Some of us at Open Book assumed that these men were reclaiming a little bit of book club "territory" from women. I figured that this latter statement was a fitting first question to pose to the group of bookclubbing men. Their answer, however, was a typical male response: “…What?” (Warning: Some male stereotypes will appear — and have already— but don’t worry, these guys are harmless. So sit back, relax, put on your favourite Stones album and enjoy.)

Although it may appear that I’m making light of their response, and perhaps their response was just in jest, it nevertheless reveals the ridiculousness of preconceived notions of gender towards certain activities such as book clubs. (And no, the men don’t gather around a fire in caves and smash books with clubs, let’s just make that clear.) The simple response of “what” threw my question right back at me — it’s not that they didn’t understand the question, they just never saw their club as making some kind of gender-centric statement. It’s just a couple of guys that so happened to create a book club because they wanted to.

And this is literally how the Golden Beach Men’s Book Club formed. Tom Clark, whom I was in contact with, first brought my questions to a club meeting so that the questions were asked as a group. Their response to how the group formed is rather simple: “Basically, George sent out an email a couple of years ago asking if we thought a bookclub was worth a shot. So we gave it a shot.” No explosions there. Does that mean that the shot missed the mark? Not exactly — they’re still together. What keeps them together, most likely, is the fact that “the group has barely achieved self-awareness, let alone strategic direction. (One member’s response: “Is this a bookclub? Holy cow!).”

Rest assured, they’re more put together than they let on. Although Tom uses “organic” to describe the process of deciding which book they will be reading, “organic” can be used to describe the club as a whole. There was no predetermined grand scheme to take over the book club world, just some seeds were planted and nurtured with a “shot,” and it eventually grew. (And if taking over the book club world, or just the world in general, is part of the organic process, I don’t think these guys would complain…well, or even be aware of it!)

But yes, each book is chosen through an organic process: “If someone is really keen on a book we will read it. If more than one idea comes up sometimes we will just all read different ones on the same theme.” And when it comes to themes, they’re pretty diverse. Last month, someone mentioned English Murder Mysteries. It turned out there were quite a few books, so they decided to each read one. (To name a few: Gallows View by Peter Robinson, Still Life by Louise Penny and Tears of the Giraffe by A.M. Smith). And if the English Murder Mystery theme doesn’t seem too diverse, well there is also this month’s Christmas theme: Quantum physics and spirituality, from Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi to Neil Turok’s The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos. (I’d choose the physics). And if you'd like to know what they've read in the past, the pictures accompanying this article are just a few of the books they have read!

Perhaps when they rule the world, they’ll have their Golden Seal edition of books read by the Golden Beach Men’s Book Club, but until then they use various forms of media to read: “Paper, ebooks, audio books, the library (did you know they lend books there for free?).” And on the fourth Sunday of every month (unless they mistakenly schedule a meeting on the Grey Cup like they did a couple of weeks ago) they meet to discuss what they had read.

To describe what goes on during a typical meeting of the Golden Beach Men’s Book Club, I’ll let the men do the talking. Although Tom sent me this response, it feels like there are plenty of interjections from everyone else that can only be heard if I give it to you in full (with my italicized interjections in brackets):

“At the average meeting guys drift in about 7:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Chat about politics for a while or the latest gadget. Host provides beer and tea (hopefully in separate containers). And cookies (mm). Cookies are important (I'm sold). The host is expected to lie about making them himself. Usually we are sitting in a living room, around a fire often (so I guess they do actually sit around a fire), but in summer we have the meeting outside sometimes.

"Then someone 'finds' Tim, on Skype (as if he’s lost in the world of Skype, talking to some random stranger or another book club). Tim is the disembodied head (!) who now lives in Sudbury. He is also referred to as the oracle because he reads widely and knows what book we are supposed to be reading and has actually read it. If you are a disembodied head you have a lot of time for reading (but how does he turn his pages!?).

Eventually we talk about the book — sometimes for a short time, sometimes for a long time. We take lots of tangents. Someone starts talking about completely unrelated books. That’s ok. No set questions. Then we pick the next book. Complain about politicians. Someone will ask Blair if he can fix their car, or computer or water pump (I need his number). Shuffle out about 10:00 p.m.”

So if you’re not sold by now, then you can’t join the club, get outta here. And if you’re interested but you’re too far away, well, there’s always a club that you can start on your own. It’s pretty easy and the formula can be found in the description above. All you need is cookies, beer, a disembodied head and books. Or: email a couple of guys (and/or gals, depending on what kind of club you want to start), offer beer and cookies, don’t be totalitarian (i.e., participants don’t have to read whatever book is set for the month), fix the date, avoid meetings that would fall on the Grey Cup and send out an email after each meeting to remind the group what they are reading.

In all seriousness, all jokes aside, members of the Golden Beach Men’s Book Club all have stumbled upon a profound discovery about the club: “It has made us all read a lot more, and we like it.” Sometimes we all need some kind of prompt to get us to read, or more precisely, to read more. There are times I find myself not reading as much as I’d like to. And when I start thinking about what books I’d like to read…let’s not. So not only have Tom and the Golden Beach Men made book clubs sound cool and awesome, they've has also given me, and hopefully you too, the impression that joining a book club (or starting one), either now or in the future, is not a bad idea at all.

Phil Miletic is an editorial intern at Open Book: Ontario and a teaching assistant at Brock University. Fresh out of the English MA program at Brock, Phil hopes to continue down the road of academia scattering poems, stories and whatever else he can along the way.

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