An Ode to ODD Books

If you’ve been in a book group for long, you’ve been there: the choice for next month’s meeting is announced and it’s a book you would never choose to read on your own. A book that you don’t expect to enjoy. A book that is ODD.

A thought will pop into your head at this moment, as your mind charges into fight-or-flight mode: Maybe next month, I will stay home. I think my toenails will need trimming that evening. It’s the season finale of Meandering and Floundering with the Stars.  My second cousin’s child’s best friend has an important wiffleball game that I should attend. Yes, next month, I will definitely stay home.

This is a plea to reconsider that thought. I’ve noticed over the years that the best book group meetings often happen when you least expect them. If you make a habit of dodging too many of the books that you don’t expect to like, you’ll miss out on one of the great joys of group reading: stretching your horizons and finding new sides of your own reading interest that you might not have know you have.

One group that I read with often chooses classics, the kind of book that I don’t seem to find time for now that I’m not in school. In that group, we take turns selecting the books, and the tastes are diverse. One member, in particular, tends to pick works with a reputation for being dark or difficult: Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Albert Camus’ The Plague, or thick biographies of historical figures. My first reaction is usually to run screaming from the room, but I try to hang in there and read the book (admittedly with gritted teeth in some cases), as do most other members of the group.

The surprise comes with such books when the group reassembles to discuss the reading. Almost inevitably, one or two of us discover that to our surprise, we liked this book, we like it a great deal. Perhaps it was much more readable than its reputation led us to believe. Perhaps it was less dated and more relevant than we had thought. Or perhaps it was ODD, but in a way that worked for us. In other cases, people don’t love the book, but in discussing why we don’t like it we learn something about ourselves or our reading interests. Clarifying exactly why you don’t like something can be surprisingly rewarding.

Another example came from my science fiction/fantasy book group meeting this week. I approached the meeting with dread because our topic for the evening, nanotechnology, had yielded a set of suggested books that was entirely missing the usual suspects, the authors that our group members love to read and re-read. The topic was technically advanced in a way that I feared would baffle us. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a couple of our members had enough background with chemistry to open the door to some fascinating science. Many of our readers had discovered midlist authors: Kathleen Ann Goonan, Alistair Reynolds, Mike Shepherd, Joel Shepherd, and Travis Taylor to name a few, that they really enjoyed. By the time we left, I couldn’t help thinking that the topic that had elicited groans when first introduced had yielded one of our best meetings of the year.

So at that moment when you start planning next month’s schedule of alternate activities in startling detail, STOP. Remember that one of the reasons you joined a book group was to challenge yourself a little and find new pleasures. That unlikely book, that ODD book, is just the book that is likely to yield new experiences.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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