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Crib Notes For Your Book Club

As Stephen Sparks previously mentioned, a good number of us book lovers like to go around talking about novels we have never read. I mean, who has time to read The Flamethrowers when this is happening? Still, it can be a tad bit embarrassing to get caught with your literary pants down by someone who has actually read the text. Lucky for us then that Kenneth Nichols has come up with a handy guide for bluffing your way through your next book report.

Let’s be honest.  You didn’t read the book.  You were assigned Atlas Shrugged for a class, and then something happened that was more important than slogging through hundreds of pages about a selfish woman who wants to meet some guy named John Galt.  Maybe your inconsiderate monthly book group settled upon War and Peace, expecting that everyone had plenty of time to get through a thousand pages of…war.  Don’t despair; it is possible to get through the literary discussion you’re dreading with minimum preparation.
·        Before you meet with others, read a single, random page closely.  Even though you didn’t bother to get through Fitzgerald’s point-of-view-bending Tender is the Night, you’ll be able to rhapsodize about, say, page 165. “The narrator claims that Dick had written psychology books and these contained ‘the germ of all he would think or know.’  I think this is really significant in the context of Fitzgerald’s attitude toward his character.”
·         Be careful not to appear surprised when, in the course of the discussion, unexpected plot twists are revealed.  Even though you have no way of knowing that some guy named Bigger from Native Son accidentally killed a Caucasian woman, don’t raise an eyebrow and whisper, “Really?”  When someone mentions that Tess (of the D’Urbervilles) commits murder and surrenders at Stonehenge, simply shake your head in ambiguous disapproval of the pre-feminist world in which the book was written. Don’t flip through the book and say, “Stonehenge?  Are you serious?”
·         Pounce when the discussion turns to a facet of the work with which you’re already familiar.  If possible, mention the primary conceit of the book.  During discussions of Nella Larsen’s Passing, for example, say something like: “It was very brave for Larsen to publish a book about the contextual perception of race, especially in the past.”
·         During a lull in the conversation, ask a vague question that will force others to reflect on your breadth of knowledge.  Mention as many impenetrable philosophers as you can. You will look smarter than you are, and discourage anyone from challenging your obtuse, meaningless assertion.  Bonus points if you convincingly pretend to ask a question that affects the interpretation of the whole book.  After pretending to have read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, ask: “If we consider the book through a Derridian lens, doesn’t a Marxist reading seem the most Shavian in a Foucault-conceived world, particularly in light of John Locke’s conviction that you shouldn’t tell him what he can’t do?”
·         When in doubt, say something relating to the title of the book. No matter what you say, the group contrarian will probably prattle on for fifteen minutes.  This is particularly helpful when used with books whose titles include an adjective.  Simply call the validity of the adjective into question.  For example: “I’m not sure the new world is really as brave as Huxley would have us believe,” or “Are the Ambersons truly magnificent?”
·         On occasion, you will have to pretend to have read books for which you can’t find  a summary and analysis from Cliffs Notes. This is a shame because those ‘study aids’ are great for ‘helping you truly grasp’ what you’ve ‘already read.’ Should your teacher/book group assign something as uncommon as, say, Grace Paley’s story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, look through the book’s Amazon reviews for clues as to what you should say. Then, do a good, old-fashioned slow flip through the book to determine which themes the book reflects.  In the case of Paley’s Little Disturbances, one might discuss Manhattan… Teitelbaum…air conditioner…Virginia…Morgenlicht…Gallic temperament… and the Russian art theater.  Propose that the group discuss the “impact of World War II on Jewish Central and Eastern European short story writers who spent time in France before immigrating to New York City where they could, at long last, enjoy air conditioning before they see a Russian play.”
Sometimes, even the best book group faker can make a revealing mistake, forcing you to resort to emergency measures.  Take a deep breath, then look contemplative.  If you’re not sure how to look contemplative, try to think of the answer to a simple mathematical problem such as the amount of the tip you would leave for a polite and competent waitress who may have forgotten to charge you for a $7 martini and presented you and your guest with a bill for $53.11.  Bite your lip as though you are immersed in an existential struggle with the text.  If someone is staring at you, bob your head in a subtle sigh, suggesting you had a personal epiphany no one should feel comfortable enough to disrupt.  If pressed after your mistake, claim that “you don’t feel you have the right as a [signifier of race/gender/sexual orientation] to comment.”
On other occasions, you will be asked a specific question by the group nerd, or the other person who didn’t read the book. Deal with this in one of two ways:
1)      Say, “what did you think?” or
2)      Claim that their question is somehow unfair: “Should we, in 2011, really debate whether or not it’s okay to ask if the characters of Bleak House are well-rounded?  Should Dickens’ characters really be removed from their…British backgrounds?”
Quick advice that no one else may have told you:
·         Do not refer to George Eliot as a man.  ‘George Eliot’ was a pseudonym used by a female author during the time before women were respected as authors. Use female pronouns when discussing her or people will laugh at you. Flannery O’Connor and George Sand are also women.
·         Thomas Pynchon’s 1963 novel V. is unrelated to the recently remade 1983 miniseries about reptilian space aliens disguised as humans.  If you brag because you could tell early on that the Visitors were really a human flesh-craving Nazi metaphor, people will laugh at you.
·         F. Scott Fitzgerald died before finishing and polishing The Last Tycoon, so don’t ask the person sitting next to you if their book is also missing pages.  (The same goes for Dickens’The Mystery of Edwin Drood.)
·         David Copperfield has absolutely nothing at all to do with the magician whose two greatest tricks were making the Statue of Liberty disappear and seducing an in-her-prime Claudia Schiffer.
·         If you decide to just watch the movie instead, be careful not to refer to the character by the name of the actor who portrayed him. For example, don’t say, “I loved when he watched Russell Crowe jump off of the bridge in Paris because of the guilt he felt.  This is what makes Hugh Jackman one of the greatest characters in all of fiction.”
Each of these strategies is predicated upon the assumption that you try to figure things out on your own.  This is an unrealistic expectation.  If you’re going to ask someone else to describe the book to you, be sure your co-conspirator is someone you can trust. You will be quite embarrassed if you head into your book group, tears in your eyes, lamenting that Boo Radley killed Atticus Finch’s kids.  (Oh, and Scout is a girl.)
Kenneth Nichols received his MFA in Creative Writing from Ohio State and teaches writing at two colleges in Central New York.  His writing has appeared in a diverse range of publications, including Skeptical InquirerStepAway Magazine and PopMatters.  He created the writing craft web site Great Writers Steal, accessible at www.greatwriterssteal.com.
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Comments: 1

(249) Comments

  1. That settles it, I’m never discussing another book by anyone named George.

    Great piece, Ken.

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