What Books to Choose

As long as I was a high school foreign language teacher, I taught from the textbooks assigned to my classes. They wouldn't have always been of my choosing, and in fact some were later sent out to sea when the authorities realized that they were stuffy, or boring, or used methods that were ineffective and old-fashioned (memorizing dialogues with no relation to real life). I did sometimes slip in a reader I'd found and liked, persuading the language chairperson to order copies on the department's budget.

I've confessed elsewhere that I was neither a born nor early reader--that changed only later in life. Eventually, I set out to put together a modest library in my apartment, including newer issues of a few books I'd read earlier in college whose original copies were falling apart. ("The Brothers Karamazov" of Dostoevsky is an example. Yes, though preferring not to be tested, I did manage through that challenge more than once.)

For the past three or four years I've belonged to one, and then a second, gay men's book groups that meet monthly in Manhattan. They indisputably refute the notion that men don't read, because they're always full of men who have read the chosen work and gathered for an hour and a half to engage in a sharp discussion about it. Far from following a set curriculum, these groups work on the principle of reading books that members have liked and suggested. It's freedom!

Rotating between new and older works, fiction and non-fiction, gay and non-gay (though mostly gay), the books have covered a wide range of authors. A good number are books I likely would not have read otherwise.

I've committed myself as a group member to read works that for me turned out to be a bad choice--books that would have benefited from being a hundred pages or so shorter; books that repeat themes in my view worn down; or books that were just poorly written.

Still, it's exciting and giving of some feeling of power to be in a place where I, or others nearby, can choose which book to recommend--a work that will cause men to devote time to reading it, and then to come to talk about it.

I've offered a few suggestions for books, and sometimes I test the choice beforehand. But I have to be ready to hear colleagues slam the choice, or simply say they didn't like the choice. (I thought Machiavelli's "The Prince" might give plenty talk about, but a fellow group member, smarter than I, said, "I don't think that would be good for us.")

Still, I've had some of my suggestions accepted. A new men's group started in 2016 with Andre Aciman's gay novel "Call Me By Your Name." Awhile later we turned to James Baldwin and read "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (one of the few books that almost no one didn't like). More recently we are reading a long Irish novel, "At Swim, Two Boys" by Jamie O'Neill. Doing justice to this wonderful book requires abundant time and attention, but the effort more than pays off.

One thing I've learned in these groups is that what has appealed to me hasn't always appealed to the next guy--and vice-versa. Every month's book nearly always provokes differing points of view. Even when I didn't like the book we discussed, it always happens that a meeting ends with my having greater appreciation for the book and what others saw in it.

It's been tempting to nominate one of my books for the new group, but I haven't done so. I'd love it if there were cheers, of course, but I know I'd find it hard to hear jeers among guys I like.

My own doubts about these book groups, which I thought would never last, have been put to rest, and I love going to them. Bravo for men who read and are willing to pick books.

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Stanley Ely writes about books in "Life Up Close, a Memoir" in paperback and ebook.