Book Clubs: The Bookworm’s That Man in Our Lives
The imaginative world
Lovers of literature tend to be rather solitary figures. Their love of literature can become such a vice that sometimes it is pursued at the expense of its nemesis, real life. But the shelving of real life doesn’t need to accompany a love of literature when book clubs are out there as a place where readers can gather to discuss books. Readers of literature are very similar to writers of literature. They’re a bit weird, I suppose, would be one way to describe them. All that time spent alone, conjuring up imaginative worlds, has to attract a certain kind of eccentric, who needs to vent their likes and dislikes regarding literature, at least once a month. The book club is where venting, in the safety of numbers, can take place.
Book clubs select a book that everyone attending should read before the next meeting. Can I suggest that having some books to choose from and having a vote on the book that is to be read is the best way of choosing? Lovers of literature are not lovers of all literature. If one person chooses the book there is always going to be at least one of the eccentrics who doesn’t like their taste and, in no time at all; they’ll write a story full of vendettas and conflict and threatening to make its mark in the real world. Avoid that. A democratic vote will at least direct the ire of the eccentric unhappy with the chosen book to the group and not an individual.
That Man in Our Lives
The Bookworm Monthly Book Club meets in Beijing at the Bookworm Bookshop and Library once a month. This month they are meeting on September 21 from 19:30 – 21:00 to discuss Xu Xi’s That Man in Our Lives. ‘That Man in Our Lives,’ is a transnational 21st-century novel, which examines the shifting balance of power between China and the U.S. It is an ambitious, witty and generous novel, which also has enough mystery to keep even somebody with 20th century tastes turning the pages. It also delivers an Asian perspective on the challenges and opportunities of globalization, while exploring the loss of traditional ideas about the self, and what loss means for authors and readers.
That Man in Our Lives, is set against a tale of lifelong friendship between Gordon Ashberry and his two best friends Harold Haight and Larry Woo and their families. Born to wealthy East Coast parents, Gordon is a sinophile who has never held a job, married or raised children.
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When Gordon turns 50, he tells Harold, a tax lawyer, that he wants to give all his money away. An opportunistic young, Chinese writer learns of this, and approaches him to write a book (Honey Money) about his decision, and upon publication, it becomes a minor success. The ensuing success sends Gordon into self-imposed exile for several years.
The novel opens in March 2003, when Gordon is 55 and decides to disappear during a flight delay in Tokyo. The fallout around his disappearance explores ideas about friendship and how much or how little we know of those we think we know well.
Though Xu Xi is an Indonesian Chinese raised in Hong Kong, she writes in English. For those quick to stereotype the Bookworm Monthly Book Club of Beijing as a book club that might focus only on Asian or Chinese literature, you are wrong. (Not that there would be anything wrong with focusing on Asian or Chinese literature.) Last month they read Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. The archetypal modern African novel in English, published in 1958, but set in the 1890s and highlighting the fight between colonialism and traditional societies. The month before that they read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, which is recognized as Hemingway’s best book. Book Clubs need variety, and the Bookworm Monthly Book Club provides that.
This is the 21st century
In the 21st century, where fewer and fewer people actually read books, novels, in particular, book clubs are a great way of re-creating an interest in what is steadily becoming a lost art form. Book clubs turn book reading into a kind of social activity and, let’s face it, a lot of lovers of literature are isolated people who need a sense of community. Book Clubs can give them the opportunity to talk about something they love with like-minded individuals and, who knows, friendships might even form. How else are you going to meet a lover of literature?
This is 2016
Strangers who start conversations on buses or in queues are the kind of people who don’t have friends and the kind of people who don’t have friends don’t have friends because they’re sociopathic. That’s how the 21st-century mind works. You’re safer in a book club where your comment, “‘Notes from Underground,’ is Dostoevsky’s only funny book,” doesn’t need to be directed at anyone. And, even if no one has mentioned Dostoevsky, at least one of the eccentrics might get a kick out of it and ask you to meet them for a coffee or some vodka. You never know. It’s unlikely you’ll get banned or ostracized. You can make a joke out of it. Keep bringing up, ‘Notes from Underground,’ and say at the end, you were doing that because you’d like that to be the book next month. They’ll be forming an orderly queue before you know it to ask you out on a date. You’ll be fighting them off. That man in our lives is you, the solitary figure who suddenly feels like he’s invented something he’s going to call real life.