By February 7, 2008 1 Comments Read More →

Three-Ring Circus

This week my book group discussed Sara Gruen’s Water for ElephantsI was excited to read it as I had been hearing good things and even noticed that Stephen King put Gruen’s book on his best of 2007 list (shameless EW plug).

 Water for Elephants tells the story of Jacob Jankowski.  Jacob is studying veterinary science at Cornell during the Great Depression when he loses both of his parents in an automobile accident.  When he discovers that he is now orphaned and penniless, he leaves mid-way through his final exam and hops a train out of town.  But it isn’t just any train that he finds himself on; Jacob has inadvertently hopped on board a traveling circus!  Jacob’s life is changed forever and he meets some of the most memorable people (and animals) of his life.  Jacob, now in his 90’s and in a nursing home, tells us his remarkable story, a story that begins and ends with a twist.

My book group loved it and came in with some really great insights into the book. We talked about the reliability of Jacob, the narrator, about the story’s parallels to the story of Jacob in Genesis, the sadness of old age, Depression era America, and, of course, the circus. 

One reader, E, talked about how the book itself was arranged as a three-ring circus.  It’s a book where there is so much going on, so much to distract, so much illusion and slight-of-hand and suspense that you cannot pay attention to everything at once.

Another reader, H, said that the book was well-crafted in that the author chose an outsider to tell the story, to lead us into the circus world.

One of our most brilliantly verbose members, K, said that the character, August, was a “classic abuser.”  She had done work in the past with domestic violence cases and thought the author captured the two sides (the charming and the violent) of people who abuse perfectly.

Another reader, K, shared her sadness over Jacob’s lack of connection to family. She said that her grandmother, who was in assisted care, was really close to her family and felt that old age didn’t have to be the way it was depicted in Jacob’s case.

I sat in awe, listening to the varied impressions of each member in the group.   I was reminded how we each bring our experiences, our perceptions, our whole selves, to what we read.  The readers in my group surprise, impress and teach me something every time.

As a book group leader and librarian, I often fight the perception that I must ‘know’ everything or that there are distinct answers to the questions that I throw out.  One reader confided in me at the close of the discussion how she felt that the group was so smart, somehow inferring that she was not or that being ‘smart’ was a requirement to join in discussion. 

Yes, I am impressed by the intelligence and the thoughtfulness of many of the readers in the group.  But it’s about so much more.  It’s about sharing your experience, learning from the experiences of others.  It’s about bringing your whole self to the reading of the book and sharing with the group.  We may not always express our reactions, thoughts or questions with articulate ease (I know I don’t!).  Sometimes we are still processing what we have read. Some of us are better at articulating our thoughts out loud, some of us better in writing, and some readers just feel and cannot (or prefer not) to express.

A book group should be like a circus–it should be a place where we can all be different and all fit in.

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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