I'm a writer. My dad's an engineer. We speak different languages and are often flummoxed as to how to smoothly communicate. But I found an unexpected way to give him something that is the most precious gift in our busy lives—time and thoughtful conversation. We call it our annual Christmas book club, and here’s how it works.
One of us suggests (or more often, I choose) a book to read in the coming season. Then we divide the book into approximately 100-page chunks, and get together bi-weekly to discuss it, either in-person or—since my parents live a three-hours’ drive away—on the phone. We spend about an hour discussing our favorite parts, quibbles with the plot or analysis and any personal experiences that dovetail with what’s being outlined in the book.
Let me be clear—I’m not some shill for Big Reading or a serial book club member. I may have joined Goodreads once, but I’ve never posted a review. Frankly, I’m lucky to have enough time to actually complete a book, what with all the single mom-ing and multiple tv streaming hits I need to stay on top of. And TBH, the only reason I started the practice years ago was because it checked off two boxes in my ongoing quest for cultural efficiency: Being a good daughter?—Check. Having read something for general edification that doesn’t have to do with health or parenting?—Check.
Our book choices are all over the place, from the prosaic to the transcendent. Selections include both fiction and non-fiction. I’m sure to choose books that are interesting to one or both of us, but not exactly in our comfort zone. For example, I chose The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach because it had something to do with baseball, which my dad follows, but I don’t. I’d read that it was a good enough yarn to interest even readers who aren’t sports fans…and let’s just say the book turned out to be a home run, gripping us with a suspenseful plot and touching emotional beats. I selected Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing by Jacob Goldstein since both my stepdad and I are fans of Planet Money, the podcast where the author worked, and even though my dad knows more about finance and credit, I learned a lot and think that he enjoyed sharing his considerable knowledge with me. And we were both knocked out by Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—and it inspired a spirited conversation between us, as former Southerners, as to just what was going on with all those Civil War statues being removed last year.
Not all our choices work. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies by Jared Diamond seemed like it would be a shoe-in fave, but this story of how environmental factors shaped the modern world turned out to be too wonkish as a fun read. And In Love by Amy Bloom, a heartfelt and worthy memoir by a fine writer about assisting her husband in committing suicide after the onset of his Alzheimer’s, was just too much for me. (Not my choice!) But even the books that don’t quite hold us are great fun as intellectual exercises, because we’re forced to clearly explain to ourselves, and each other, why we don’t care for them.
Overall, in one of life’s little cookies-from-heaven curveballs, our Christmas book club was my idea for a present to my father, but turns out I’m the one that’s really gotten the gift in this exchange. I’ve learned to slow down enough to actually give a book a close read, something I haven’t been in the habit of since I minored in English in college. (I’m even writing in book margins these days.) Not incidentally, I’ve learned to listen to the viewpoint of someone that I have, to my chagrin, often dismissed as being from another generation or not hip to my “sophisticated” world understanding. I’ve also learned to look anew at things like sports, finance and my role in a lineage of f-ed up racial history (seriously, you need to read The Underground Railroad), to name just a couple takeaways.
And one last amazing thing about this practice…it’s IDEAL for last-minute shoppers. For instance, even with Christmas just around the corner, I’m still weighing which book to choose this year. Will it be something frothy, like Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (he might like it, as a science guy, and I love that critics are comparing it to Where’d You Go, Bernadette?) or something weightier, like Strangers to Ourselves by Rachel Aviv, a well-reviewed collection of stories about people with unusual psychology? I have another full week to mull this over, so I’m waiting for inspiration—and, you know, to finish Lauren Groff's Matrix, which is currently on my nightstand.