My brother and I were rooting around in my garden shed a couple of days ago - oh, and I'll tell you that quick story at the end of this post - when I heard my neighbor next door talking to her husband. "Did you know," she said, "The video store is closing." I stood up so fast I almost hit my head on the door frame. The video store closing? Our little video store with that great selection of foreign films, all the latest movies and everything else in between, plus they'll order any movie or obscure series if you ask for it - closing? I whipped off my long rubber gloves, the ones I use for pruning the roses, but on this occasion they were for hazardous waste, and ran into the house to hit the internet. And there it was, the news: the video store WAS closing, and according to the writer the loss was due to the fact that it "didn't fit the current model." Now, you've heard me go on about trendy phrases before, usually uttered by almost-thirty-something tech company whizz kids, and "doesn't fit the current model" is doing for me what "paradigm shift" did ten years ago.
You see, as far as I'm concerned, we just lost a great third place in town. A place where people came together, had a chat, chose their movie and went home - neighbors, conversation and entertainment, all in one. You'd be standing there, head to one side, looking along the list of movie titles, and you'd feel a tap on the shoulder as someone said, "Great seeing you here!" and there would be a friend, a neighbor, the guy you chat to while walking the dog, and you'd pass the time of day, find out about how the kids are doing and off you would go, the warmer for it. The third place is about community, without having to go on about it. Real communities don't have to talk about community building, because it's transparent to them, it's what they do naturally, because it's right and it cradles us all in a feeling of belonging.
A few weeks ago, my publisher asked me to write a piece about book clubs for www.readinggroupguides.com. They'd asked if I could and I said "Of couse," even though my nose was pressed up against the cold, hard wall of a deadline. Having written the piece, I thought that one day I might use it for the blog, when an acceptable amount of time had passed. I don't know if this amount of time is respectable, but here it is anyway (and apologies for the shameless mention of my own books, but I was asked to throw them in, so to speak):
"Since my first novel, MAISIE DOBBS, was published in 2003, I have spoken to many, many book clubs, large and small, old established and new – in fact, I was recently at an event where a group of women had just met, and decided over lunch to organize a book club and planned to start their new venture with one of my books. Always lovely to hear!
In his book, “The Great Good Place,” Ray Oldenburg says that every person needs a “third place.” What’s a third place? Well, home is the first place, work is the second place, and the third place is, “where everyone knows your name.” Society once had lots of third places – pubs, community centers, evening classes, sports halls, etc. – but as the individual became all-important, so we thought we could lose the third place, because we had everything we needed at home, from a bar to a movie. In the past few years we’ve seen people struggling to build community, that thing we once had but didn’t need to think about. As I’ve traveled around the country on book tours and speaking engagements, I have come to see the book club as a great third place, even if the location is a different house each month.
It would seem that the ideal book club read is one that resonates on different levels, a book that inspires personal sharing of experiences, a dialogue about current events, or spirited conversation on an issue that moves people. Since people first began connecting with each other through the myths and legends that still enchant us today, we have reached out to each other with our stories. A book club is a latter-day version of our ancestors around the crackling camp fire. As we discuss the characters, the plot, the language, the pace and our response to a chosen book, we celebrate our individuality, our diversity and the reflection of ourselves we see in each other,.
A couple of years ago I was signing copies following a bookstore presentation on my series of novels, when I noticed three women waiting on the sidelines for everyone to leave. It was clear they wanted to talk to me alone. After the audience had left, I waved them over and we sat down around the table together to talk and they unfolded their story. The women belonged to a local book club, and did not know each other well when the group was formed. Each month they would meet in the house of one neighbor or another, and though there might be a little back and forth personal talk over a glass of wine, they would soon get down to talking about their chosen book of the month. They wanted to tell me about the MAISIE DOBBS discussion. As readers will know, a significant part of the main character’s history is her experience as a nurse in the Great War, on the battlefields of northern France in 1916. As the discussion progressed, one of the women told the group that the book had impacted her deeply, because she had been a nurse in Viet Nam, and she had never talked about what she had seen and experienced, and had never acknowledged the impact of wartime service on her life. Another woman began speaking, sharing the same experience, then another said, “I was also a nurse in Viet Nam ....” As the women reached out to each other, so they were held by the other members of their book club. Coming to that “third place” had changed their lives.
That is the power of story, and it also shows the possibility for connection within a book group, and the catalyst for deeper conversation inspired by a love of literature.
It bears saying that a mystery lends itself to book club discussion, not least because some of the best literary fiction today is mystery fiction. In the storytelling tradition, a mystery represents the archetypal journey through chaos to resolution – or not, as the case may be. With that as a framework and a guide, a mystery is the perfect vehicle for literary insight into the experience of ordinary people in extraordinary times or situations, into the social challenges of our day, and into the fragile human condition itself. The mystery novel offers another lens through which to view history, and can help us make sense of the present – a rich dish to serve along with that book club beverage of choice!"
That's it. And now, as Flora Post might have said in Cold Comfort Farm, "Back to the shed."
I went out to the shed a few days ago, I think to find a broom (well, look at the price of gas!), anyway, I thought I could smell something a bit odd, but decided not to look, mainly because our shed has all sorts of junk inside and I didn't fancy a run-in with a black widow spider. Later, my brother, who has been sorting out our sprinkler system for us, had to go to the shed. When he came out he informed me, "I reckon there's something dead back there."
"John," I said, "You should never say that to a mystery writer. I'll be chewing on that little nugget all afternoon."
Sadly, it was our garden possum. Now deceased. Like the video store. I'll miss them both.