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Literary Community: The Silver Lining of the COVID Era

I finally had a hair appointment and while the grey is back under control and the cut is cute and bouncy, the best thing about the appointment was somewhat unexpected. The act of reclining back toward the sink to have my hair shampooed brought on a state of near ecstasy I hadn’t anticipated. It wasn’t just the perfect water temperature; it was the caress and massage of another’s hands on my scalp.  I have always enjoyed that part of the process, but it’s possible at a pace of every 6-8 weeks over the past twenty years, I had begun to take it for granted.  Gloved hands working the soap through my hair made it perfectly safe for both of us (of course that was first thing that went through my mind before I could relax into the experience.)  But then it was all about another’s fingers spreading and applying pressure to a head that had been reeling, fretting, aching.

To be touched. It is a primal human need. I’ve gone six months turtling into my shell, shrinking back when others come too close, my circumference of acceptable personal space swollen and awkward.  That shampoo was a Godsend. I know what I have been missing and what might have me come alive again.

Since that afternoon, I’ve been wondering what will be the occasion and who will be the recipient of my first ungloved handshake once this has subsided, in the new-normal?  It probably won’t be planned or foreseen, but I hope it elicits the same awareness I had while my hair was being shampooed and rinsed.  As opposed to never knowing when an interaction with somebody or something is going to be your last, I look forward to being aware of that first.  I vow to be grateful for human touch and the generosity and connection it exhibits. May I never take that for granted again.

But even as my hair grew unruly and turned its natural color while at home, some things became more accessible in the virtual world, including literary events. Of course, they are always more fun in person, but never before did I have the option to attend one every day in locales near and far.  Like a kid in a candy store, I binged on them in April and May, doing my best to support authors who had the shit luck of launching a book during the pandemic. I found new favorites and ordered books from Bookshop.org to keep indies in business.

literary-community-during-covid-family-watching-computer copyThe summer months brought more events, and I was able to drag family members along in ways I never was able to before.  While working on a jigsaw puzzle, my son and I tuned into a Sarah Broom and Thelma Golden in discussion about THE YELLOW HOUSE through the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival.  Our local bookstore featured Colson Whitehead’s discussion of THE NICKLE BOYS and THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and while my adult children went on about their business preparing dinner in the kitchen, they stopped and listened—and then actually read all of Whitehead’s work.  I binged on Europa Edition’s worldwide panel discussions of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, the Boston Book Festival’s event with Ella Berthoud, who streamed in from the UK to prescribe her NOVEL CURE

I’ve also taken many classes and attended writing conferences, thanks to Grub Street, The Southampton Writers Conference, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, and Mary Carroll Moore. What’s more, I taught my first fiction workshop, an 8 week generative class on Monday evenings through the Westerly Writers Workshop and the Ocean Community YMCA. What used to be an infrequent respite from a busy life has become a weekly pleasure, filling in the distance between us and the encircling arms of friends.

jeanne-blaserbg-at-computer-for-literary-eventAnd I am not alone. If you are a book lover or lifelong learner, I’m sure you have had similar experiences.  If you want a few tips – please know it is Book Festival Season. I am biased toward the Boston Book Festival, but the Brooklyn Book Festival and the National Book Festival are also coming up with events open to all online.

We are at a strange moment in time, with technology making our world smaller and more accessible even as world events balloon the distance between us. But don’t take it for granted. Indulge now because the pendulum is sure to swing once more.  

Even as I look forward to that first handshake, the next shampoo, the opportunity to hug friends outside my bubble close once more, this communion with fellow book lovers is a different kind of needed touch. For now, may I take as much pleasure in the brief caress of each literary event as I did in that simple moment at the salon. 

Jeanne M. Blasberg, author of "Eden", and friends at book club

Book Club: It’s Okay if You Don’t Discuss the Book

The following article was originally published on NovelNetwork.com.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the disparaging comment that book clubs drink more wine than talk about that book. I’ve visited many book clubs since the release of EDEN, and people who think it is just an excuse to drink wine don’t get it. Book clubs are for readers but the meetings aren’t just to talk about the book. In my own book club, we spend a higher percentage of our meeting time talking about other things.

And that’s okay.

When a group of friends make book selections and read simultaneously, it’s like traveling to the same place, meeting the same people, entering a common consciousness no less. When they meet later “to discuss,” enjoying food and drink, the contents of the book are almost reminisced about as opposed to critically analyzed. Some people have fond memories and some thought something was missing, some have foggy memories, and some got stuck on a particular issue, but we’ve taken the same trip and that’s pretty cool.

The common experience is what matters, setting the groundwork for a deeper dive into the themes of the book. Bonds of friendship are formed when we share experiences and ideas, when we discuss hypotheticals. A book that stimulates great discussion (tangential or not) is a good book club pick.

Better to tear apart a fictional character than to gossip, and better to discuss a place you’ve read about than to sit in envy of one person’s exotic travels. The conversation at your book club may not always stay on the one thing you have in common that month (the book) but it is a starting point to many important conversations.

It is fun to imagine friends lying in bed reading or driving in their cars listening to the same books. If you’re like me details about the book will come up in snippets of conversation when we bump into each other on the sidewalk or at the gym. I might even text a friend “loving it” or “hating it” mid-month. Often, by the time the book club meets, the temperature of the group has been determined, influencing how much time we spend on the book or how quickly we go there.

Picking a good cross section of genre, our group has found, is important. Traveling to a variety of lands offers an opportunity to compare and contrast stories as well as authors’ styles. So no, we aren’t always talking about the book, we are already a few steps beyond, on to the next step, talking about where the book took us.