Author On the Bookcase: Stephen P. Kiernan
I Have Never Belonged to a Book Club, and other confessions
by debut author Stephen P. Kiernan
I have never belonged to a book group.
For years, I thought I didn’t need one. I read so many books already, and knew what potentially fine reads were on the horizon, and followed the writing careers of friends (sometimes with cheerleading, sometimes with envy). Every month, I posted three recent favorites on Facebook and Twitter. I doubted that a book group would do much for me.
Then my friend Davis told me about his group. Unlike most, his was all male. They drank scotch. Two favored cigars, which would definitely put me out in the hallway. They gossiped, of course, and talked business, but fully seventy percent of their meeting time was spent hashing out the book of the month.
Davis said he loved it. These were smart guys. They gave serious thought not only to the current book, but to books in general. One lawyer in the bunch had read a ton of history. From him, Davis learned about the Civil War. Another, who owned a car dealership, read deeply on the topic of innovation, whether in technology or in human interaction. Davis said his ideas about the workplace were changing dramatically as a result.
So I asked: What are you reading now? Longitude, he said. Give it a try.
What? Longitude? How could that possibly be interesting?
Give it a try, Davis said. Open your mind.
The scoundrel knew exactly the sort of challenge I cannot resist. I bought it in paperback.
It was a small book, by Dava Sobel, about the challenge that sailors had faced throughout history of knowing precisely where they were on the globe. It’s easy when you’re standing at the intersection of 26th Street and Madison Avenue. Not so easy when you are ten days’ sail from the nearest land. Wars were won, lives lost, fortunes made – all by how well a seaman knew his location. The search for a device that could reliably determine longitude involved kings and peasants, navies and inventors.
The book was utterly compelling. I devoured it. There was a sea yarn, which I invariably love, and science, which intrigues my humanist mind. Best, it contained all sorts of displays of human nature – from the humble inventor to the conniving politician. Longitude was a masterwork.
I routinely recommend that book to friends, even if they don’t care in the least about sailing or technology. Now that I am deep in the writing of a sea novel, Longitude sits on my desk.
That was my first lesson in the value of a book group: Like a library, or a good bookstore, you find unexpected jewels, rare discoveries you had not even known you were seeking, and they enlarge you.
My second lesson came the first time I met with a group to discuss a book of mine. This time it was all women. They gossiped too, and drank wine, and spent perhaps forty percent of their time on the book.
But they had read it, every one of them. Conversing with them felt like it was my birthday. Every time someone spoke earnestly about a moment or a character, another metaphorical cake was set before me with the candles lit.
Nothing is better for a writer than readers who have engaged sincerely with his ideas, and in response have something meaningful to say.
Reading, like writing, is primarily a solitary act. The book is our bond, the place our imaginations meet. To bring that private experience into public air is an act of vulnerability and courage. You have to trust the people in the room. When that book group disagreed about one of my characters, debating energetically as though I were not even in the room, it was one of my favorite experiences of my life. It reminded me: In the world of ideas and imagination, we are all in this together.
Stephen P. Kiernan is the author of two books of nonfiction, as well as The Curiosity, his debut novel. Read an excerpt here, and be sure to enter the sweepstakes (which ends July 16) for a chance to win a visit by Stephen to your book club discussion.