In his speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, ‘One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: “Beauty will save the world”. What sort of a statement is that? For a long time, I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes – but whom has it saved?’ As professional book club facilitator, the COVID-19 lockdown answered this question for me in a very practical way.
What does a book club facilitator do, you ask? I select readings and guide monthly discussions for (currently) 3 groups. The first group comprises women who work at an International Organisation. This is the very first group I ever facilitated, and I have been going to their office over lunch hour for the last 6 years. The second group – now 4 years old – was initiated by my past students who after graduating, wanted to continue conversations we had in class. They were later joined by more mature alumni of a Business School who wanted to develop a reading culture. The most recent group – now going into its third year – was born when the group leader heard about the program I run for the International Organisation women. The best part of running the book clubs is seeing the impact on members. The case of the woman who resigned from International Organisation after we read Jane Eyre comes to mind. She said that Jane Eyre as a school teacher ignited a buried desire to teach and she went on to become a French teacher. In another case, when one of the members encountered systemic prejudice at work, she said that she recalled Antigone and decided to ‘speak truth to power’. Come 2020 the ‘Covid year’ further revealed to me the impact of a book club.
When the president announced the lockdown, I assumed I was about to also go on holiday, however, it was not to be, book club discussions moved online. There is one group that said they would wait until the lockdown ended. But, after only a month, this same group requested to start the sessions saying that, book club meetings were an essential part of their lives. In another book club, a young engineer who loved Hard Times, remarked how much he loved the selection of books during this period saying, ‘this Corona period has been such stress, this book club is the only thing making it bearable’.
It was a challenge selecting books that would create suitable conversation for the times we were living during the lockdown. Two books came to mind. The first was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. This book is a favourite and fantastic for book club discussions. I thought this book would help us navigate the questions: why is this happening to me? What can I do? This book proved to be the perfect gate way. Paradigms shifted, meaning could be found in this pandemic, only if one paused to look for it as Frankl says: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
I chose the second book in jest – Oedipus Rex. The story of a king who commits an abomination and as a result the country suffers a plague. Perhaps this Covid-19 was a punishment for the outrages committed by political leaders. While the book club gave space to discuss conspiracy theories about how the Corona virus came about, a more in-depth conversation enquired: are we victims of the Gods? Are we masters of our fate? Overwhelmed by events how do we navigate the temptation to remain passive for fear that action will brook disaster. It emerged that even in the most complex of situations, there is always space no matter how narrow for personal decision making and action.
Indeed, as Solzhenitsyn said, ‘… art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application, it gives to us a part of its secret inner light’. Art taught us a lot during the lockdown. But I also drew other lessons in running the book club during the lockdown:
- Momentum: As I said, when the lockdown started some members, and I myself, were prepared to shut down. In my case it was only the request of the book members that kept me moving. However, others also stopped coming. Understandably the weight of working from home, home schooling, etc. pushed leisure activities like a book club to the side. These members have shared with me that while it has been hard to reignite a reading culture they have also missed the bonding and inspiration that comes with each meeting. I have thus learnt that in the face of crisis or busy-ness, it is easy to stop our hobbies but very hard to restart. Ironically one stops precisely when they need the activity. Maintaining momentum is not a waste of time, it is survival.
- Going to the well: Women need a safe, self-nurturing/reflection space. A book club discussion will obviously discuss books on how to live, recalibrating principles and beliefs. Being women however, conversations also touched on how we were navigating life issues: kids, husbands, balancing work and home life.
- Becoming a critical thinker: A book club does more than help one develop a reading culture. It is a popular belief that one grows by reading self-help books and this is true up to a point. One needs to move beyond ‘how to’ towards ‘why to’. Literature challenges our belief systems and pushes us to personal growth. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy leads one to question life choices and the push towards making them. A reading of Animal Farm by George Orwell expanded our high school interpretation of the book to realise that we ordinary people are like the animals, tending to passivity even as atrocities are committed around them. The enchanting language in Yvonne Owour’s, The Dragon Fly Sea provided an escape to the magic of childhood and fairy stories and romance, even as it introduced a dense intellectual idea of the absence of paternal protection.
2020, was the year when I really saw the power of beauty to save.
Let’s just say that I am an avid reader. I read management and self-improvement books most of the time. I suppose this is because I am a disciple of the ‘Continuous Improvement Movement’. I seek to learn, apply and grow; Always.
I joined the Devenir book club in the COVID year; and whereas COVID impacted us in all facets of life, I am thankful that it was a year of deep reflection and exponential growth. The book club provided and continues to be a source of intellectual, engaging and yet down to earth connection. I took on a refreshing view of the literary world (Yes! there are a myriad genres of books and whereas I loved some, loathed some and was indifferent to others, I still learned, applied and grew!!). It helps that this is a female only book club, where we can also comfortably draw from and project towards personal experiences, share, laugh out loud, cajole one another and above all these form a friendship. I now have ‘Learned friends’, literally. They’ve taught me to internalize and interpret life differently, through books. I have also connected more deeply with my purpose, through the community. So go on and read, share and spread the love.
A Budding Reader
Reading was always about passing exams. I was never one to pick up a book that I could ‘lose myself in’. All that changed when my friends and I created Devenir – our very own posh Book Club. We also got a facilitator who at the outset said in passing, that our lives would never be the same – she saw it, we didn’t. The transformation was real. My husband’s jaw dropped, when I came home from a work trip, with two books I bought from the airport,
2020 came with a lot of challenges; hopelessness and helplessness as I watched close family and friends fight to live, and then lose the battle. My heart broke as I listened to their eulogies. Many is the time I got solace by making connections with characters I encountered in books. They said: ‘We do not choose the era we’re born in’, ‘…we’re chosen by a higher power outside ourselves, however, we choose how to live our lives’, ‘The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,’ said Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’.
For years I had wrestled with the all-time question of purpose. What was mine? Was I living it? In the book club I found a starting point because we go from prescription to reflection.
I learnt empathy. I remove myself from the path of least resistance, to understand other people’s positions or why they hold such views. To always remember that people are essentially good.
I learnt consistency. To always carry my atmosphere with me, but first I have to have a principle; it will help me know what to do in any situation.
I have learnt the power of now. It is never too late to heed to the call; a nudge from within, a voice of inspiration, God showing up in my dream. Never to beat myself over the past, like Patience a member of the book club once said, ‘I will do that which brings me joy, adds value to my life and to the lives of those I love’. In my journey of becoming, I resolved after we read Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’, I choose to give the world my essential good.