These books are on my bookshelf, though curiously not in the story below. Never mind. They're also great reads.
Besides kicking it with my family and friends, my second favorite way to spend my free time is reading, so finding a quality book group is the ultimate pleasure--a way to combine two of my favorite things.
But if my book group experiences are at all representative (and I suspect they are), the moment inevitably arrives, even among the most dedicated book nerds (that's a compliment), when the conversation stalls. And we fall back on familiar talk about the kids, the jobs, the latest fashion trends, how appalled we are by the existence of reality television. Etc.
Not that these conversations aren't good fun, but the book club meeting, really, it's supposed to be about the book, right?
The most obvious antidote to this (besides finding someone to rap your knuckles with a ruler when you get off topic*): select a book with the potential to generate multiple discussions and that invites personal identification with the content between the covers. Often, this means a controversial book, but it can also mean a book that raises philosophical questions, that inspires us to rethink history, or that invites us to reevaluate the present from a new angle.
As we wait for 2012's new releases, here are my picks for five memorable non-fiction books from 2011 suitable for generating interesting book club discussions that can last way past the appetizers.
Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch
The top spot goes to resident of my home state for her tour de force that is part literary criticism (or at least what literary criticism can best hope to be) and part memoir.
Sankovitch discusses enough books to provide your book group with selections that just might, if laid end-to-end, reach around the globe, but they're not summaries or analyses in themselves. Each book offers Sankovitch an occasion to examine and find meaning in her life and experiences and, by extension, readers for theirs. A testament to the power of reading but also just a deeply absorbing memoir from an interesting and thoughtful reader and writer.
This is a good time for Fairfield County, Conn. book groups to adopt her book: Sankovitch will be speaking about “Tolstoy and the Purple Chair” at the Wilton Library on Wednesday, Jan. 18 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Discussion tip: Sankovitch champions the restorative power of literature. What books have you leaned on during difficult times?
The History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor
Shadow boxes, heirlooms, keepsakes—on an intimate level, objects provide a tangible link to our private histories. In MacGregor's book, which began as a series on BBC radio, objects also tell the story of human history.
The British Museum's Director, MacGregor takes readers on a fascinating journey through human history by touring the objects we've created across time, from pots and utensils to jewelry and art to money and the credit card. He points out that access to and authority over history can be restricted by literacy, but images and objects speak a universal language. It's a heavy read, literally and figuratively, but MacGregor's readable, engaging style makes it worth the time investment.
Discussion tip: Think of three to five personal objects that you (or your family) have preserved. What story do they tell about your (or your family's) history?
Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway: Stories of the Inspiration Behind Great Works of Literature, by Celia Johnson
This one will sound familiar to some of you who have read my posts. Johnson shares the inspiration behind 30 well-known literary works. The book is divided into six sections, each representing from where a writer derived his or her inspiration. For example, ‘Lightning Strikes’ is about writers who stumbled on the germ of an idea while performing ‘a mundane task’—Jules Verne ‘flipping through a newspaper,’ Tolstoy settling down for a nap, Robert Louis Stevenson painting a watercolor. ‘On the Job’ covers writers who were inspired by their professions—Gaston Leroux was touring Paris’ Palais Garnier opera house while on assignment as a journalist; Dashiell Hammett’s novels sprang from his experiences as a private investigator.
With three to five pages devoted to each, the research she provides is far from exhaustive. But it's enough to either satisfy your curiosity or wet your appetite for more—and to get your book group talking about inspiration, where it comes from, and your experiences with the books Johnson discusses. Equally important—it's like one big lesson to be present in your life. These writers were, and they pulled out masterpieces as a result.
Discussion tip: Have each book group participant research the story behind his or her favorite book to share at the meeting.
The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale, by Susan Maushart
I stumbled on this book two weeks after first acquiring an iPhone. I loved the word play in the title, but it was the subtitle that hooked me. Two weeks in and, yes, I was sleeping next to my iPhone and feeling alarmingly dependent on the device. Even if you don't have an iPhone, though, you've perhaps experienced the pull of virtual communities like Facebook and Twitter and wondered about the extent to which they've displaced deep connection and engagement.
Maushart did and plunged herself and her technology-dependent teens into the dark ages, where 'communication' consisted of sitting around and, you know, talking with each other. Lost time on gaming stations and Facebooking also leads to an excess of free time to pursue old school hobbies like taking up a musical instrument, learning to cook, and playing board games (they still exist!).
Journalist Maushart also holds a PhD in Media Ecology from New York University, and she intersperses humorous personal anecdotes with quite a bit of research. While the lessons she and her family learned probably won't surprise you, the journey is nonetheless inspiring, entertaining, educational, and thought-provoking.
Discussion tip: Do you dare pull the plug? Maushart and her teens went on a six-month technology fast. Try one day—or if you're really bold—one week, and see what happens.
Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Peggy Orenstein
In this heavily researched but highly readable book, Orenstein examines the paragons of girlie-girl culture to determine the origins and effects of princess mania and what has been described as the “seemingly retro trend toward the ultra-feminine.” The book began as an essay in The New York Times Magazine entitled “What's Wrong with Cinderella?” that earned a spot on the 'most emailed' list and hundreds of responses from readers.
Interwoven with the bestselling author and award-winning journalist's experiences raising her own daughter are visits to Disney, American Girl Place, kiddie beauty pageants (among others) and interviews with historians, psychologists, marketing gurus, and parents.
Educational, engaging, and sometimes alarming, the book is a must-read for parents of daughters.
Discussion tip: If you have a daughter, you've most likely been to at least one of the places Orenstein examines. How does your experience compare with Orenstein's?
* But that would be corporal punishment. Not approved.
A version of this article originally appeared on HamletHub.com/Westport.