How Joining a Book Club During Quarantine Helped Me Become a Better Person
4 ways in which my views will forever be changed
I've always been an avid reader. In fact, with the books currently in my parents' storage and my bookshelves, we could probably create a small library.
My favorite school days as a child were when the Scholastic Book Fair stopped by, and I'm pretty sure I kept Borders in business the summer I commuted to New York City for my internship (they went out of business shortly after that internship ended).
But, as I'm sure happens with most people, once I entered adulthood and the full-time workforce, my reading slowed to a trickle. I tried to keep up with it and for about two years I over-promised myself on my book goal for my Goodreads annual reading challenge.
Then the global pandemic hit and I, along with nearly the entire world, was stuck in self-isolation.
I made lists of things to do to occupy my time. I was going to learn French, take online courses, and get through a handful of the previously purchased books on my shelves (hey, maybe I can meet my book goal for 2020!).
But as I powered through a few books on the shelf, I came to the slow realization that I was reading nearly the same thing just by a different author. Save for the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, most of my books were WWII dramas (I have some weird fascination with WWII history). I knew there were other books out there, but with unemployment on the horizon this fall (thanks COVID-19!) I was on a strict budget and just couldn't justify buying a book because of the cover art or the hope that it might be good.
So when Caitriona Balfe, an actress I admire for her intellect and charitable efforts in addition to her incredible portrayal of Claire Fraser in Outlander, started a book club on Instagram (@cb_book_club), I jumped to join.
I read new topics
In college, I took a course titled "Marx and Marxism." It was an interesting look into socialism and communism, and I latched onto authors like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley (in fact, I'm pretty sure I have nearly every book of Orwell's that is currently in publication). For some time, the only topics I read were those of dystopian worlds and futures, of socialism, and the oppression of thoughts and people in worlds not much different from ours. After the 2016 Presidential election, I reread 1984 and The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth, with a fear that that world would soon be (if not already) upon us.
And then I caught the World War II drama bug after visiting Europe and seeing damage left behind in Hamburg and London, and suddenly I was seeking out every fiction novel about the war.
Joining Caitriona's book club was a welcome interruption to my pattern of book topics as she's chosen books with varying topics. Granted, we're only on book three at the moment but even then I've spent time learning about Vietnamese Americans in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and the struggles of Black Americans in Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Would I have chosen these books and these topics on my own? Probably not. I can be something of a creature of habit and while I love to travel, experience new cultures, and learn about the history of the world, my nightly reads tend to veer in the same direction. Being part of a book club has opened my eyes to other topics out there in the world, and in such a short time, has already shown me the vast array of topics we, as humanity, need to read so we can be better to each other.
I heard from other voices
When I looked at my bookshelf last month, at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests, I made a startling discovery about my own biases: nearly every book on my bookshelf was written by white men and women. I had no diverse voices, and as someone who not only has friends of varying races, ethnicities, and nationalities but also fully supports the movement and the end of systematic racism, I knew I had to make a change.
I resolved right then and there to make a massive shift in my reading and learning. To spend more time seeking out the voices of diverse authors. It's why I'm keeping up with the suggested readings in Caitriona's book club - she's making an effort to choose authors of different backgrounds, nationalities, ethnicities, and races. The few diverse authors and voices I did have on my bookshelf and in my Kindle were from the first few months of the book club.
Incorporating other voices into our reading gives us insight and education into the lives of others. We become more informed and thus can become better allies and global citizens. We learn about the history of other groups of people, their life experiences, and in some cases, what they're going through right now.
Reading books by diverse authors will challenge and change your perspective of your life, your city, your country, and the world.
I made and saw human connections
Even though reading books in different genres, about different topics, and by diverse authors gives light to different thoughts, there are also notable connections that show us we're all human. Despite the struggles that many people face, there are parts of human existence that we all experience.
Love. Family. Education. Personal Growth. Professional growth. Tough decisions. Separation.
Themes and circumstances that wholly connect us as people, regardless of our gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality. And when we read, no matter what the topic or genre of the book, there is always something that will connect us to that work.
What's more, there's a connection when it comes to the actual discussion of the book. This particular book club is run through Instagram live, and the audience can comment or ask questions of Caitriona, but some may be hosted in person or with the pandemic, on platforms like Zoom.
And when we connect during these discussions, different viewpoints are discussed. Each of us can learn what others took from it. We might pinpoint a line that impacted our reading experience while others felt similarly about a different line. We learn from each other, consider other points of view, and may even take learnings from the discussions into our daily lives.
I recognized unfair divides
Reading about history from 60+ years ago seems more fictional than real life in 2020. Dystopian futures are (mostly) fiction and while themes may be present in our everyday life, the worlds the authors paint in their books are certainly fiction too. While I can sit here and say "Oh, Katniss had it rough in District 12" in The Hunger Games trilogy, it has no impact on me, my life, and the immediate world I live in.
What struck me in reading the three books so far, more so than anything I've ever read in my life, is that I'm an incredibly privileged white woman who hasn't truly lived through any kind of traumatic experiences. I've experienced catcalling and bland sexual harassment, but I've never experienced racism. I've never experienced harassment or been denied much of anything because of my immigration status or my citizenship (a Canadian passport pretty much gets me anywhere).
Taking time to read about others' experiences, the hatred and racism that exists in the world, the struggle to make enough money to eat or to just make it home in one piece each day, is so far out of my realm of experience that it could classify as fiction to me. But I know it's not. I know that people of other races, cultures, and countries experience these things day in and day out, and reading these books opened my eyes to how others live and are treated. And it makes me not only want to be a better ally for those suffering but to do anything in my power to create change.
I encourage everyone to join a book club if they can, whether it's a local in-person book club (socially distanced of course) or virtual such as Caitriona's or through apps like Goodreads and subscriptions like Book of the Month. However you choose to join, know this: reading books outside of your norm and connecting with others through discussion will shift your perspective, open your world to new possibilities, and help you become a more informed individual. Thank you, Caitriona, for opening up that world for me.