One morning several years ago, new to this area and missing the camaraderie of my Sydney book club, I wandered into the Waterbird Café to ask its all-knowing proprietor if he’d heard of any local book clubs. “Funny you should ask,” he said. “A woman was in the other day asking the exact same thing.”
“Next time you see her, give her my number,” I said.
A few days later Desley and I met. We sussed each other out, and finally said, why not start something ourselves? We invited our husbands and began looking for others who might be interested in talking about books.
Thus a new book club was born.
We called ourselves So Many Books, So Little Time. Membership shifted a little over the first years, but eventually resolved into a group of eight: there was Rick and myself, housemates Eve and Daniel, co-founder Desley and her husband, and two of their good friends. For several years we met every four to six weeks. Our protocol was to take turns, an orderly one-at-a-time, presenting our thoughts about a book we had selected to read (you might imagine how hard it is to sit still while someone else expresses their provocative views). Then we’d dissolve into free-form discussion. Rarely did we all agree on anything. My club mates sometimes had excessively strange opinions. But I always gained a much deeper understanding of the book as everyone expressed their views and insights. I loved these discussions, even when I had to shout to be heard or sit on my hands to keep quiet.
We always concluded by selecting the next book, and over time we got good at selecting just the right one. The club was a raging success.
There’s something about a book. And there’s something about people who enjoy reading books. Our Shedders community itself was born in part out of a love of reading. On our annual holidays together, some 15 years ago, we were not so much the types to kick a football around in the garden or drink ourselves noisy by the light of a campfire. More likely you’d find us sitting companionably reading, sometimes using a finger to mark our place while we shared an insight. We’d swap novels and give each other books for Christmas. (Not wishing you to think we were too cerebral, I should mention that we also went swimming, took beach walks, hiked, did yoga, and cooked meals.) (And then we’d get back to our books.)
But I digress. Back to the So Many Books club. A year or so ago it nearly came unstuck. Two of the group moved south a couple hours from here. Shortly after that, Desley and her husband decided to move to Bowral, some six hours away. We all met at their house as they were packing up, to have a last meeting and a sorrowful boozy lunch.
However, over the discussion of our final book (Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh), something unexpected transpired. Our enjoyment of the meeting made it inconceivable that we could abandon such a good thing. So we made the challenging decision to meet at each other’s widespread homes. We’d go to Bowral, stay at Desley’s, have a book club meeting, and spend two or three nights. Imagine sharing a house and three days with six people whom you know mostly through their opinions on books. Outrageous. But we were up to it.
So it happens that we’re just back from a weekend in the Southern Highlands. We took in the tulip festival, and I have to say, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the weeping cherry blossoms, thick and luscious, lining the streets of Bowral. We toured the countryside, taking in the hills and vistas. We bought croissants at the best bakery I’ve come across this side of France. Over a couple bottles of wine, we took turns trying to remember what we used to do on weekends when we were twelve years old—and gained a real insight into each other’s childhoods in the process. We also sat around fiddling on our various devices. There was a time when all eight of us were quietly assembled in the lounge room, keeping warm by the gas fire, intent on our own contraptions – tapping away as we caught up on emails, researched, played games, read books. A bystander might shake their heads about such a gathering, but there in the moment we were just friends who had talked a lot and now were sitting in companionable silence.
And of course, we had a meeting and discussed a book.
That was, as always, the best part.
Which reminds me, I also wanted to tell you about the book in question: Mendel’s Dwarf, by Simon Mawer. Treat yourself to this excellent New York Times review.
I loved the book. Mawer has climbed into the mind and heart of a brilliant geneticist, who is a dwarf. Written from the perspective of this character, Benedict Lambert, you see clearly how the world views those who stray from the norm. Imagine every eye in the room turning to look when you walk in, and then carefully shifting its gaze away again. Repeat this experience everywhere you go, every time you go out, over and over. How would this shape you? And what if as a geneticist (and a dwarf) you came to confront the exact spot on the exact chromosome that can mutate and cause you to be the way you are? Imagine standing at a microscope and having to choose the embryo which is safe from dwarfism – thus keeping the future safe from beings like you.
The novel dips into eugenics, and has you contemplate a world without serious physical defects. No achondroplastic dwarfism (and no Benedict Lambert). No ALS (and no Stephen Hawking). For me the book came to be about the painful beauty of diversity, and about the impossible choices we will increasingly have to make as genetic engineering becomes the air we breathe. Shall I scan my genes for any lurking danger? Do I want a boy or a girl? Blond? Dimpled? How tall?
A good book can stay with you for a long time.
[Author’s note: Groucho obviously didn’t know about
my new Kindle paperwhite, which would allow me to read even inside a dog.]