National Reading Group Month may have concluded this past weekend, but the reports keep coming in! This latest from Charlie Haas, author of The Enthusiast, details the event in San Franciso last week, as only he could tell it. In his novel The Enthusiast, Haas tells the story of Henry Bay, who has worked at nearly every enthusiast magazine in America, from Spelunk to Cozy: The Magazine of Tea. He has enmeshed himself in the enthusiasms of others -- soon begging the question as to what his own passion is. Read on for Haas's report of the SF National Reading Group Month event at BookShop West Portal.These five writers walk into a bookstore. The fact that we do this is a story in itself, since the bookstore’s in San Francisco and this is the week when the Bay Bridge starts dropping steel rods on passing cars and has to take some personal days. Getting around the Bay Area is a little hilarious right now, but the bookstore event is a celebration of National Reading Group Month, and everyone finds a way there.
Nervous about my transit connections, I arrive early and take a sunset walk on West Portal, a storybook California shopping street of Spanish tile, stucco ornament, and half the world’s cuisines. On the wall of an alley across the street from the bookstore, someone’s hung a painting of a young woman in a pose of serene ecstasy. A Lucite border is inscribed TO ME, WRITING IS THE MOST THERAPEUTIC THING POSSIBLE. A smaller sign says TO LISTEN TO THE POET CALL 415 200-4587 X 13.
I dial, and stand in the darkening alley listening to the young woman in the painting read a sweet, blunt poem about a love affair. Then I cross the street to Bookshop West Portal, a welcoming indie with some nice original choices (Zeroville!) on the front tables.
We’re greeted by poet Joan Gelfand, president of the Women’s National Book Association, which invented National Reading Group Month in 2007. As the audience filters in, the four writer-panelists talk a little shop (three minutes to explain your book on TV is too short; an hour to explain it on radio is way too long). Joan notes in her introduction that the WNBA, at 92, is older than the women’s suffrage amendment, and starts us off with short readings: Meg Waite Clayton introduces the characters in The Wednesday Sisters, her supple story of friendship and writing set down the road in Palo Alto; Allison Hoover Bartlett gives us a gripping bit from The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, a true yarn of biblio-theft and detection; Mary Mackey offers mystical doings in the Brazilian rainforest from The Widow’s War; and this reporter dips into The Enthusiast, a comedy of American obsessions, loneliness, and belonging.
Then Joan asks us about our experiences visiting reading groups, and we have so much to say that an hour of radio starts to look short. As Meg says, it’s hard to pin down why writers write, but the consensus is that connecting with readers is much of what’s in it for us, as it is for that woman in the painting in the alley. She’s found a new method -- it’s the age of new methods -- but the impulse never changes, and a visit with a reading group that’s discussing your book is the industrial-strength version of that connection. These are the readers you hoped for, sitting in a living room and debating the same things you debated with yourself when you were writing, but with insights, biases, and bodies of knowledge you didn’t have access to.
We get into details -- Mary, with her Civil War novels, has encountered the rare all-male book club; most groups we’ve met would rather find their own way into books than use publishers’ guides and questions; and this reporter goes on a bit about the excellence of reading group snacks -- but we keep circling back to how much our book club house calls and speakerphone visits have deepened our own understanding of what we do.
Once, at a San Francisco book club meeting, I joined a discussion of why the protagonist of The Enthusiast does something. I said, “I’ve always had the feeling that he does that because --”
“You mean you don’t know?” someone asked, not unreasonably. But some things people do in books, as in life, have ambiguous causes, and the writer wants to leave them open, to have his or her own theories alongside the readers’. A lot of the good theories, honed by practice, come up in those living rooms. Writers write books but they don’t entirely finish them -- readers do, sometimes in groups. How cool to be part of their month.