The book club

By Daniel Dunkle | Nov 20, 2020

I’ve never been part of a book club. I’m not good about reading something I’m supposed to read.

But I happened to notice a constantly changing rotation of famous novels on a colleague’s desk, and we got to talking about books, then sharing books and have now formed something of a two-man book club.

He started in his 40s or 50s to read many of the famous or classic books. I dabble here and there in the classics. Both of us have kind of branched out a bit.

I recently borrowed from him a copy of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” by Shirley Jackson. As a horror writer and fan, I have always heard of her and seen a few movies based on her novels, but never read her before in any length, other than a few short stories.

This novella was particularly good once I got into it. I will self-plagiarize here and borrow a description of the basic plot from a review I wrote for the movie, tweaked where the book is different:

Two sisters, Merricat and Constance, live with their disabled Uncle Julian in the old Blackwood family mansion.

The family is damaged, living in the aftermath of the poisoning that killed the sisters’ parents and aunt. Julian’s health issues result from the poisoning as well, and he remains obsessed with the incident, constantly talking about this book he’s writing on the topic.

Constance was accused and acquitted of the crime and now lives as an agoraphobic in the house.

The townspeople hate the family. They likely always resented them for their wealth, and their power as the owners of the town’s industry, but now believe they escaped justice as well.

It is the younger, quirky sister Merricat who must make the weekly trips into town to obtain groceries.

Their troubled, but manageable existence, is thrown into an uproar when their cousin Charles shows up for an unexpected and lengthy visit.

The first and best reason to read Shirley Jackson is the quality of her writing. It’s clean and clear. I love it.

The story itself has a dark tone. It captures the mechanics of fear. The townspeople fear this family, fear living in a society where justice is not done, so they act out. As individuals, they are less toxic, but the book explores what happens as a group of anxious people coalesce into a mob.

The family members are terrified of the townspeople in turn, and over the course of the book, she shows how the idea of a haunted place or a dangerous, horrible coven of unseen witches forms first as a seed of truth in the belly of the oyster that eventually grows into a pearl of pure legend.

It’s somehow completely familiar and relatable while being somewhat fanciful.

I especially liked the Merricat character, who narrates the story and her constant companion, her cat Jonas. She buries family heirlooms in the yard, chooses magic words that must not be spoken and nails books to trees in a form of witchcraft that makes sense only to her. Fun stuff.

The great thing about reading this book lent to me by my work friend is that we then get to talk about it. Christine read it, too. That’s the best value of books, newspapers and magazine articles. They give us something to talk about with our friends. They plant ideas that we can expound upon.

I think there’s a value to short books like this. I think if you’re starting a little book club, it’s better if the book is relatively short. Then you can quickly get through it and talk about it.

Why not clubs for other sorts of mediums? Why not a weekly club to talk about what you read in the Courier or The Camden Herald? Why not a club to talk about the recent edition of The Atlantic or The New Yorker (or if you’re more like me, Fangoria). Or we could have a sudoku racing club, a crossword club.

Not that I would commit to joining or organizing a true club. I agree with Groucho Marx, who said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

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