I am a voracious reader. I read everywhere: on the couch, in the bath tub, in bed, on park benches, airplanes, busses, and in the subway. Reading, I shut out the world and immerse myself in the world the author has created for me. Reading is my solitary pleasure. The bond is between the writer and me. I have never allowed anyone in to share my pleasure. It felt as if I’d be letting the world in to watch me making love.
For that reason, I have never participated in a book club. The last time I discussed literature in a large group was more than 30 years ago in high school, more specifically my German Gymnasium. Back then, only one interpretation of a work of fiction was allowed, that of the teacher’s. I sat in class knowing that the teacher was wrong, that there was more than one way of looking at the text, that all interpretations had value. Writers are open-minded; they present the lives and motivations of even the most despicable characters and often do so without judgment. So it was with great trepidation that I attended my first book club meeting.
Fifty percent of all the books in translation published worldwide are translated from English, but only six percent are translated into English. This amounts to 400 foreign fiction books (of which approximately seven are German) per year translated into American English. The European Book Club was launched one year ago by the librarians of the Austrian, Czech, French, German, Italian, and Spanish Cultural Institutes in New York City to expose more Americans to the wonderful literature of their homelands. From the beginning, it was a huge success. The Polish, Romanian, and Norwegian libraries have subsequently joined.
I was prepared. Reading Katherina Hacker’s The Have-Nots had not been a pleasurable solitary experience. In fact, I had to force myself to get through the story of well-to-do thirty-somethings, who like the rest of Germany, seemed to suffer from low-level chronic depression. I had a hard time following the multitude of characters and the simultaneous stories lines. I didn't care for the 9/11 reference, the wealthy protagonists, their pain, angst, and ambiguity. I wondered why Hacker had won the 2006 German Book Prize.
At the Goethe Institute’s new downtown location, twelve women and one man sat in a circle. Unsure how to act, I sat back to observe. Many participants found the novel difficult to read. Some had not finished the book. The group explored the motivation of the characters. The protagonists were one-dimensional and lacking in empathy. Had that been the writer's intention? We discussed the different prose style of American and German writers: great storytelling, entertaining literature as opposed to literature as Bildungsauftrag that made the reader work hard.
In no time I felt totally at ease and plunged into the discussion. We jumped around quite a bit, touched on the role of Holocaust in post World War II German consciousness, German guilt, and Herta Müller winning The Nobel Prize. Should we read her next? We discussed modernism in literature, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. Maybe Katherina Hacker tried to do something similar? We all agreed that she didn't have the skill of those writers. We shared personal experiences about 9/11, living in Berlin, Poland, in Ceausescu's Romania, and as a Jewish American in 70s Germany.
I was impressed how polite and inclusive the group was. No one cut each other off. We pointed to the weak portions of the book with kindness. I sat there thinking what if I was to discuss this book with my friends in Germany? Would we have trashed the book, used much stronger language? Would we have been so kind?
After the official end of the book club, most stayed and continued the conversation over wine and pâté crackers. A diverse group of people had been brought together by their love for European literature. I was glad I had been part of it. This had been an extremely enjoyable evening. “When is the next meeting?” I asked before walking out the door. “Count me in.”
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