How 3.5 Book Clubs Helped Me Grow This Year

For most of my life, I avoided invitations to join book clubs. I had way too many books on my “to read” list already. Not to mention all the reading I was doing as research for my work. Then along came the pandemic, and I accidentally found myself in 3.5 book clubs.

The first started not long after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. One of the founders of our Random Acts of Kindness group suggested we all read the book How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and discuss it. At the time, we were meeting every other month, so we chose to discuss the book on the off-month and discovered we really enjoyed reading together. We decided to keep the book club going. Every other month, the host chooses three books (mostly novels, but sometimes nonfiction) and the rest of us vote in order to arrive at our top choice.

Of the 15 or so books we’ve read, only two were on my personal to-read list. A couple, though, were by authors I’d always meant to try or on topics I’ve been wanting to learn more about. We’ve read some really good books, a few so-so selections, and one clunker.

The other book club has a similar pandemic origin story. Three of my writer friends and I had been getting together every other month to talk shop and just gab. At some point, I recommended a book and suggested we read it together. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. Instead, we started reading a new book every two months or so. Most were about creativity, personal growth, or business (think The Soul-Sourced Entrepreneur by Christine Kane).

The third is a book club of two. A friend recommended a book called It’s Not Your Money by Tosha Silver. I read it and loved it, but I hadn’t read it “properly.” The author suggests diving into one chapter per week and acting on what you’ve read. My friend and I decided to do that in January of this past year, and that experience led to some pretty nice ah-ha moments for both of us. Those realizations, though, came not just from reading, but also from discussing our personal experiences as we acted on the author’s advice.

I’m sure you’re wondering about the .5 in the 3.5 book clubs. That is our local “one book, one city” program, which I’ve followed and supported for nearly all of the 20 years they’ve been in existence. The first citywide read began in Seattle, and now hundreds of towns, including mine, have adopted the idea. Our local committee chooses a book and author for the event and announces the choice months in advance. Individuals and book clubs throughout the city read the selection and show up on a designated day to hear the author speak. In its heyday, our committee brought in some bigwig writers, including James McBride, Rudolfo A. Anaya, Ann Patchett, Erik Larson, Colum McCann, and Geraldine Brooks. They had Alice Hoffman lined up for 2020, and then COVID derailed their plans. Rather than cancelling, they switched to a virtual presentation. Though not as exciting as sitting in a room with 1,000 other book lovers, the online event afforded me a unique benefit; my mother and I always read the year’s selection together, but she lives out of state. This time, we could “attend” the event together.

So why am I bringing all this up? Well, it’s the end of the year, and I’m taking stock. I did reach my goal of reading 30 books this year (31 actually). Only half of those were on my personal to-read list. The rest came about because of these book clubs.

What I discovered was that one of my favorite solitary pastimes was also stimulating to experience with others. The pandemic gave people like me more alone time than we cared for, which is probably why I finally succumbed to those invitations. I needed to feel like I was part of something. I needed a sense of community. I knew I was giving up a bit of control over what I chose to read, but nothing else in that crazy time felt within my control, so why not lean into that in a positive way.

I’ve talked a lot in this blog about how art so often held me together during the pandemic, whether that was watching the Broadway production of Hamilton in my living room with my theater-loving daughter, or sitting socially distanced at a parking lot music concert, or enjoying an outdoor sidewalk art festival filled with images of hope, or bundling up in warm coats and blankets to sit outside and discuss a really good book, art kept me going.

This year brought additional challenges my way besides a global health crisis, and it was art that got me through that, too. Well, that and the kind of self-discovery that comes from having deep, honest, vulnerable conversations with friends and family. So, thank you to all the writers, artists, performers, musicians, and more who gave us an opportunity or excuse to gather and fill each other up. And kudos to me for be willing to let go of a bit of control in order to grow. Here’s to more art, adventure, awareness, ah-has, and awe in the coming year.

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