Hello, lovers of books.
A curious and wonderful thing, the book club. When I was a teenager, in the late 1970s, I don’t think they existed. I certainly never heard of any, and my parents and I were no strangers to the pleasures of reading and the world of books. Then, fifteen, twenty years ago, I’m not sure when exactly, they exploded onto the literary scene. Now, there are book clubs everywhere, formed by every kind of group and catering to every taste, and everyone seems to be a member of one. Why have book clubs emerged as a major cultural institution in America?
Each of you has an answer that reflects your experience and explains why you’re a member of a book club. Let me venture some of my thoughts.
I believe that book clubs have gained such enduring popularity because they are rooted in the notion of gift-giving, that is, of giving and doing something for nothing. Reading a book and sitting around talking about it with friends is an activity that has no profit-motive. You don’t do it for money; you do it for the simple pleasure of it, you do it for free. And that, in a society where what is free has been completely devalued, is a blessed relief.
To expand on this notion, I should mention a curious, exceedingly private book club of which I was a member until very recently. For close to four years I shared books with someone. No, it wasn’t with my sweetheart, though she does love to read, nor was it with a friend. It was with the Prime Minister of Canada, a stiff little man named Stephen Harper. Every two weeks I sent him a book and a letter in which I discussed the worth of that book. Why did I do this? Because I see in Mr. Harper a man whose heart and mind are bereft of the spirit of gift-giving, a man untouched and unmoved by the literary book. He’s a petty, divisive, ideologically-driven politician, keen on the simple idea rather than the fruitful but complicated compromise. His ideals are not dreams for the world but walls against it. This type is not unknown to American politics, I believe.
I wrote one hundred letters to Mr. Harper, sent him one hundred books. That’s a lot of books and a lot of letters. For all my efforts, I received this many replies from Mr. Harper: zero, not a one, nada, zilch. (I’ve kept a public witness of my lonely book club with the Prime Minister of Canada at www.whatisstephenharperreading.com. There readers will find every book with every letter.) What is the nature of a book that is gifted? Let’s look at that.
For starters, a gift, be it a book or anything else, is given freely, without strings attached. That’s the definition of a gift. Something exchanged for money or services is, ipso facto, no longer a gift. As Lewis Hyde points out in his wise and wonderful book The Gift, a gift also creates attachment, while a commodity, an item that is bought or sold, creates detachment. When you buy something, you are alone and sovereign in your possession of it, indebted to no one. But a gift, given or received, creates an emotional link. You are grateful to someone for their gift, you remember them, you wish them well. The mercantile exchange of goods goes toward creating independence and isolation, while the giving of gifts does the opposite, creates relationships and fosters interdependence. That matches the atmosphere of a book club, does it not, one of relationship and interdependence?
A gift has more worth than a purchase. Let’s take the example of a nice shirt you’ve been eyeing in a window shop. It looks mighty fine and you want it. But it’s expensive. Finally, telling yourself you only live once, you splurge and you buy the shirt. You look good in it and it becomes your favorite shirt. Yet look what happens next. After a year or two, you’ve got used to that fine shirt. After thirty, forty washes, it’s lost some of its sharp look. It’s even getting a bit tattered. Then a stain ruins it, but you can still wear it when you’re doing work around the house. And fashions have changed anyway. In the last stage, if the shirt is not outright thrown away, it’s torn to pieces and turned into rags.
So with all things purchased: a ceaseless frothing up of psychic excitement followed by a slide into indifference. We buy and sell so many things in the West, we build our cities and our economies and our lives to serve this type of exchange—yet so few of these purchases truly matter to us. What is bought has no real worth. That is why it must be given apparent worth by being valued in mercantile terms and traded for cold hard cash, because it is inherently worth nothing. Its value is artificial.
The gift, on the other hand, the true gift, lodges itself in the memory and in the heart. Remember the dying words of Citizen Kane, that man of vast wealth and power: “Rosebud.”
Rosebud was a gift.
What we give for nothing, we give with meaning. The gift is wrapped in tenderness and thoughtfulness. The gift, however small in mercantile value, is the token of something that cannot be priced. Is that not, once again, the atmosphere of a book club, a discussion whose worth cannot be priced, conveyed in a spirit of tenderness and thoughtfulness?
A gift has latent value, that is, a worth beneath the surface. A book is a material object, a thing. But turn the cover, read it, love it, and its material basis is left behind as it becomes an object in the mind, that co-creation between the writer’s imagination and the reader’s. Once read, a book becomes part of us. Meanwhile, the object that has only surface value, the bauble, the knickknack, the widget, remains on the outside, transitory and perishable. And a book given to us can be given again, given onwards, with none of its value lost, the spirit of the gift kept alive by being kept in motion. Again, are we not here entering the realm of the book club, where we give and take freely with our words and feelings, round and round, month after month?
A book club operates in the spirit of a gift. It’s a grand idea, even a revolutionary one. So if you’re a member of a book club, take proper stock of what you’re doing. You’re fostering that greatest of all goods: a community.
That, I believe, is why book clubs have become so embedded in our social fabric, because they create a sense of community, and a sense of community is the best defense against the Harpers of this world. When everything else pulls us apart, the book club, centered on the sharing of a book, keeps us together.
Yann Martel’s most recent novel, Beatrice and Virgil, is now available in paperback.