Book club books

Recently I was shopping at a store where I saw a rack labeled “Book club books.” I didn’t have time to go browse (much as I would have liked to!), but I was curious what earned a book that designation.

I understand when books are segregated in bookstores by genre (though I agree with an author I read recently, who says it’s too bad bookstore browsers are less likely to pick up a different sort of book than when all titles were lumped together). It makes sense that some books are classified as children’s books or young adult books (though as I blogged recently, good books transcend those categorizations).

But what makes a book a “book club book”? Is it because it has been chosen by some nationally known book club? Is there some forum where people in local book clubs, like the one I belong to, tell what books they’re reading? Do editorial reviews recommend certain books as particularly suited to book club reading?

I’ve been thinking lately about the sort of books we’ve been reading in the book club. There’s quite a bit of variety in them, in some regards. Most are fiction but we read one biography. Most were written in English but we read one that had been translated from another language. Some are mysteries, one  was historical fiction, some are short easy reads and others take more time and effort.

But one generalization I can make is that words like “happy” and “light” do not characterize these books. I don’t expect books to avoid pain and loss – life is full of those, so realistic fiction is also. But so many of these books are dark, full of anguish and tragic death.

Our book for November was The Dovekeepers. I saw the word “harrowing” on the cover and didn’t exactly look forward to reading it. Once I realized it was a fictionalized account of Masada, I had an idea what the ending would be like. At one point I set the book aside for several days because I wanted something lighter to read. (It’s a good book, really, just not for when you’re already feeling down.)

December’s book was Defending Jacob. It is (in part) a murder mystery, and I’ve read and enjoyed lots of murder mysteries. Most of them, however, tell the story from the point of view of a detective, not the prime suspect’s parents. A comment on the cover referred to a the “shocking gut-punch of an ending.” I tried to guess what it might be but failed, and the ending really is a gut-punch. It took me a few hours to shake off the feelings it stirred up.

I started Googling “choosing book club books,” trying to see whether it was normal for such books to be so depressing. Apparently so. I found discussions where readers asked, “Aren’t there any happier choices?” (Though I have to add, I also found some where people asked for sad books to read. I don’t understand that.)

One guide on how to choose book club books pointed out that “books that spell out everything leave little to discuss.” Books that generate lots of discussion are those with “complex characters who are forced to make difficult choices under difficult situations.” Other criteria are “unclear endings” (so you can talk about what you think really happened) and raising “many, many issues.”

We do have some interesting discussions at our book club meetings. But often they get more interesting as they wander further from actual discussion of the book. We talk about family, and about personal experiences. Sometimes we talk about issues that are raised in the book.

For me, that discussion of issues is what I’m looking for in conversation about a book. Books I read bring up issues about ethics, trends in society, ways that an improvement (to whatever) often brings new kinds of challenges.

These books may be science fiction, mystery, historical fiction – and non-fiction. They have difficult situations, and usually complex characters (I am disappointed in the books where the characters are too simply drawn). But they are not so dark; pain and loss are offset by hope.

A book does not need a “happy” ending. But I want to read books that have hopeful endings. I would not say hope has been absent in all the books we have read in the book club. But it has not had a strong presence.

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