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What to Read Next (No. 238): Book Clubs and Buddy Reads
Also, Jim Jones
Happy Friday, readers!
Community — which I’m defining as a group of people who spend time together — can bring out the best and worst in people. At its best, community can fuel your love for life and make you a better person; at its worst, community can spark unmentionable actions and despicable beliefs.
Life is all about people, which is why I love reading about communities. So many of the world’s great books are simply about groups of people. To name just a few that I’ve thought about lately: War and Peace, Lonesome Dove, Endurance, The Great Believers, the list goes on.
In the first part of today’s newsletter, I highlight one of my favorite groups of people. In the second part, I highlight a book about Jim Jones, who orchestrated the mass death of his community.
Whichever way it goes, there’s no doubt about the power to be found in a community of like-minded, dedicated people.
In Praise of Book Clubs and Buddy Reads
Earlier this summer, the Colorado Cocktail and Literary Society had our 50th meeting. 50th! It’s been one of the great joys of our time in Colorado to get to know these eight people. We were acquaintances prior to the CCLS, but our time discussing books has played an outsized role in turning those relationships into deep friendships.
We first met back in the summer of 2017 to talk about J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. From what I remember, the group mostly enjoyed the book and had quite a lively discussion about it. This wasn’t your typical joked-about book club where everyone just drinks and gossips — we actually got into the content and the author and our personal connections to the book, if any (while indeed also pairing the books with a relevant cocktail).
The next month, we came together and talked about The Zookeeper’s Wife, and then Homegoing, and then Modern Romance, and we’ve just kept on going. (I mean, are you really surprised that I keep a spreadsheet of our books/meetings?)
COVID-19 shifted our meetings to Zoom for a while, and each summer we take at least one month to focus on a documentary rather than a book, but other than that we’re pretty damn consistent.
And ya know what? It’s one of my favorite days every month. I obviously really like books, so that’s part of it, but it goes much deeper than that.
When you talk about a book with a group of friends, it always ends up as so much more. The conversation veers and zooms out to the broader topics of art, or meaning, or the power of a good story, or knowledge vs. action . . . in short: life.
We laugh, we complain about the world, we celebrate and mourn together, we stay up too late on weeknights (depending on your definition, of course).
We also think, we grow, and we change our minds about things.
Consuming a written text is an incredibly imaginative act — you’re forced to visualize what you’re encountering rather than just sitting and taking it in (as with TV/movies). When you read in a community, it inevitably gets more personal and more meaningful than you’d expect. Your ideas about the book and what you take away from it — even if it’s just that you were thoroughly entertained for a while — become more balanced and nuanced than had you consumed it 100% on your own.
So if you aren’t part of a book club, I can’t recommend highly enough starting or joining one (even if it’s online!).
Starting a group isn’t as hard as it might seem: text a few friends and ask if they’d be interested in reading a book together and talking about it.
It doesn’t have to be a big group. Our crew of 10 is about perfect — it’s not so big that some people’s voices get lost, but it’s big enough that if even a few folks can’t make it, there are still enough opinions for a good chat. (There are no plans for growth; we’ve added a couple people to the mix, but we really are very exclusive. 🙂)
And even two people reading together is plenty! Often called a “buddy read” on the bookish internet, this is where you grab a friend (even a long-distance one), read a book, then spend some time talking about it.
I’ve been doing regular buddy reads via FaceTime with my pal Jonny (who, 11 years ago, stood by my side as I got married) and it’s been fun to simply have an excuse to talk more regularly and get to know each other even better as we discuss a wide range of books — from classics like Brave New World to contemporary fiction like The Lager Queen of Minnesota to graphic novels like The Sheriff of Babylon.
Reading a book solo can certainly change you, but having conversations about it gives that book a deeper impact. It enables you to think about other viewpoints and opinions; it forces you to see that the same text says different things to different people; it reinforces the story, the characters, and the primary messages.
Reading is great. But reading in a group is even better.
Are you part of a book club? I’d love to hear about it! Have questions about ours? I’ll do my best to answer!
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn
I first read Jeff Guinn’s work when I went on a mini Charles Manson binge-read last winter. Guinn’s Manson was masterful and compulsively readable, so his other works ended up high on my to-read list.
I had read a little bit about Jim Jones before, but Guinn’s work opened my eyes to the cultural forces that surrounded him and the Peoples Temple.
What happened in Guyana in 1978 is often called mass suicide, but a significant percentage of the victims were unquestionably murdered. Jones didn’t give the people of Jonestown a choice; if you were one of the ~1,000 people present that morning, it was incredibly hard to escape what was happening.
What’s so interesting about Jim Jones is how truly progressive he was in his early career. He welcomed the Black community into his Indiana church and adopted children who looked different from him and his wife — an extremely rare circumstance in the midwest in that era.
So what went wrong? How did a progressive preacher end up perpetrating the mass murder/suicide of over 900 people?
Through a combination of unchallenged hubris, lies that went too far, and good old fashioned heavy drug use, Jones changed into a man who led his community to the grave.
What Guinn is so masterful at, which is evident in Manson too, is bringing in the broader cultural context in order to provide a complete picture of not just Jones and the Peoples Temple, but also the societal forces at play throughout the ‘70s.
I listened to the audiobook of this one and had a hard time turning it off once I got started. Guinn’s storytelling is superb, but what’s especially impressive, given his niche subject matter, is how well he explains the mind of a murderer. He certainly villainizes Jones — he deserves it — but with a tone that never feels cruel or subjective.
Guinn is a conjecture-free surveyor of the dark side of human nature who, in all of his writing, has sought to provide a truthful explanation and description of not only what happened, but why.
The Road to Jonestown is a fascinating, absorbing descent into the mind of Jim Jones and the community he both created and destroyed. Highly recommended.
RMB Rating (out of 5): 4.5
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