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Seven characteristics of a successful reading group
March 2020, right in the middle of Lent, was the first month in 16 years that a group of Catholic men in Eugene, Oregon, were unable to meet together to discuss books over some fine Northwest beers. That unexpected “fasting” from our book group was a reminder of how meaningful such gatherings and conversations can be. This is especially true as they can enrich and deepen our spiritual lives in ways we don’t always recognize until they aren’t available, something I’m contemplating this Lent.
The group, bearing the ambitious moniker “The Neo-Inklings,” first met in the spring of 2004 at a local brew pub, invited there by myself and Anthony (Tony) Clark. The inspiration for the men’s reading group came from Tony, who at the time was working to finish his doctorate in Chinese history at the University of Oregon.
Tony and I had met a few weeks earlier after Divine Liturgy at the local Ukrainian Catholic parish, and we quickly discovered that our shared love for the Catholic faith also extended to reading and good books. “I need a couple of hours each month,” Tony said, “when I can be with men who share the same interests as I do, and we are able to freely discuss Catholic books and the Catholic faith.”
The plan was simple: invite some other men to join us to discuss a book chosen beforehand. In hindsight, after nearly 200 meetings, it’s a minor miracle it worked. So much could have gone wrong; so much should have gone wrong. But we quickly discovered a truth that G.K. Chesterton expressed so well back in a 1904 essay on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “The sincere love of books has nothing to do with cleverness or stupidity any more than any other sincere love. It is a quality of character, a freshness, a power of pleasure, a power of faith.”
Love of books is obviously necessary for a book club, of course, but there are other important qualities, including good character, a love of truth and a commitment to faith. A book group that lasts for many years and consistently includes edifying insights and challenging discussions is a bit like a good marriage: It requires purpose, devotion, honesty, patience and, yes, sometimes forgiveness.
This Lent, consider starting a group of your own to dive deep into some of the greatest books by Catholic authors. Here are seven characteristics that stand out to me as essential to the longevity and quality of our group.
I’ve talked to several men and women over the years who have participated in groups formed “to talk about books.” Most of those groups, unfortunately, had short lives. One reason, I suspect, is that while “discussing books” sounds wonderful in theory, it is often too vague to sustain interest and commitment. Inspired by Tony’s initial idea, we specifically aimed to have a group of Catholic men discussing good Catholic books, with an emphasis on Catholic belief, practice, spirituality and history.
Yes, we’ve had some non-Catholic men in our group, and we have read some books written by non-Catholics. But that core goal has not changed, and it has been essential to keeping the group oriented to its larger goal, which is growth — spiritually, intellectually and otherwise — as Catholic men. This has always helped us in making decisions about what to read. For example, while we once read a book on Church teaching about money and economics, we passed on a suggested book, written by a secular author, about successful business practices, as it simply was too far removed from the purpose of the group.
What about the “men only” approach? I think most Catholic men are rarely able to spend quality time — certainly not on a regular basis — with other Catholic men in a setting that allows them to converse, discuss and debate freely and openly. Years ago, I was in a book group for about a year that included both men and women, and while it was certainly enjoyable and edifying, it had a more formal and reserved dynamic. Scott, one of our group’s long-time members, sums it up well in remarking that “what is special for me is the camaraderie of Catholic men unabashedly discussing, learning about and living out their faith.”
Stability and structure
Our first meeting was in a typical Oregon pub — and it turned out to be a very loud pub. It also didn’t have the sort of relaxed feel that encourages good — or easily heard — discussion. For a couple of years we met every month at a different home. That worked fairly well, but it had its own challenges, especially for men with young families. We’ve been fortunate for many years now to meet in the home of one of our longtime members. Such stability has proven invaluable, especially when the meeting area has its own kitchen and well-stocked refrigerator. “Having a convenient location is essential,” says Joe, a college professor who has been part of the group from the start, who adds: “I’d hope that any local parish would be able to offer some meeting hall or religious school classroom space for such a group. The only inconvenience would be the lack of an onsite refrigerator!”
Having a regular meeting place with a “home” feel establishes a comfort level that shapes the entire evening: There is an authentic sense of routine and familiarity. In addition, we have long had a simple and effective structure to our two-hour meetings. The first 30 minutes or so are for greetings and informal conversation — time meant, as Scott notes, “to build rapport within the group.” We then open with prayer before discussing the book for about 90 minutes.
Good men of common mind
Chesterton mentions “quality of character,” and there’s no doubt that a long-lasting reading group must have men of good character. Such men respect the goals of the group and participate for the right reasons — not to hog the floor, pitch a pet project, or be contrary about every sentence read or opinion expressed. Sometimes men who are invited to attend will come to one or two meetings and then not return. In some cases, they apparently were looking for something different; in a few cases, it seemed they wanted to bend the group to their own purposes, which simply wasn’t going to happen.
And in a couple of instances, they appeared unhappy with what I think is the vigorous orthodoxy of our group. Not rowdy or triumphalistic, but also not shy about believing and upholding Church teachings. My own pastor, Father Richard, who I have known for over two decades, says, “As a priest, meeting with this group is nourishment for my faith. It is a blessing to see fine, Catholic men seriously discussing good books and their faith and seriously enjoying the company and support of one another, in contrast to a culture which often sees little or no value in these things.”
Excellent (but mostly inexpensive) books
An obvious point, but that doesn’t means it’s easy to figure out which books exactly. Or when to read them. Over the span of nearly 200 months, we have read and discussed some 100 books. The first was “God and the Ways of Knowing” by Jean Daniélou, followed by works from Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, G.K. Chesterton, Peter Kreeft, Hilaire Belloc, John Henry Newman, Father James Schall and many others.
Several books have been about Church history: the early Church, monasticism, Western culture, the Crusades, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and modernity. There have been books about Jesus Christ and sacred Scripture by Benedict XVI, Brant Pitre and Frank Sheed, and works about philosophy by Kreeft, Aquinas, Josef Pieper and Dietrich von Hildebrand. A handful of fictional works include “Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor and “Lord of the World” by Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson. In many instances, current events or anniversaries influenced book choices. So, for example, in 2015, we read and discussed the four constitutions (Lumen gentium, Dei verbum, Sacrosanctum concilium and Gaudium et spes) of Vatican II on the 50th anniversary of the close of that council.
Some men in our group use e-books, but most prefer physical books, which means price points are important. We try to select books that can be purchased for $20 or less, and try to alternate more expensive books with books easily found for less than $10-$12. Although some very fine books don’t make the cut because they are too expensive, there’s no lack of exceptional, affordable books. Length is also a factor; only occasionally do we take on books over 300 pages, and it is often the case that we discuss those books for two, or even three, months.
This can be, without doubt, a tricky issue. On one hand, the group is quite democratic: It’s not meant to be a class, and it’s certainly not a lecture. But in order to carry on and stay the course, someone has to be at the wheel. After Tony had to move to taking a teaching position across the country, I took up the mantle of what I jokingly call “benevolent dictator.” Most of this is simply communicating well, letting the men know what day we are meeting, what book we are discussing and so forth.
While I’ve always looked for input on book ideas, I’ve often made the final decision about what book to read and discuss. I usually ask for the opinions of men who have been in the group for many years, and I emphasize that the group is not my group, even if I take up the leadership mantle in some ways. Scott, the CEO of a large company, who has been a part of our book group for many years, advises, “Have a specific leader that has the respect and knowledge to guide the group.” Because I write and edit for a living, and have worked for Ignatius Press for many years, I’m fortunate to be immersed in the world of Catholic books on a continual basis. The rest of it is a matter of being consistent, charitable and always willing to listen to ideas and questions.
The combination of a dozen men, some beers and religion is bound (hopefully and usually) to lead to vigorous conversation. Boundaries are occasionally stretched; opinions are sometimes strong or even heated. Even so, personal attacks are nonexistent, a direct result of good character and strong respect. All the better, as Tony once put it, “for iron to sharpen iron.” Where there is a love for truth, charity is close at hand, even if strong disagreements occasionally come to the fore.
While the group is not supposed to be an echo chamber, it should provide mutual support. Keeping discussions on track is often simply a matter of refocusing on the text at hand: What does the author mean when he states this? Or how do you think this argument or that claim by the author holds up to facts and scrutiny? In other words, the book in hand can — and even should — take the brunt of criticism on occasion. Yet, while a handful of books have proven disappointing over the years, the vast majority have edified, informed and challenged the group, thus holding up their end of the discussion.
Good beer! “Drink because you are happy,” wrote Chesterton, “but never because you are miserable.” In my experience, men who come together to talk about their faith and good books are never miserable. Not that everyone does drink (they don’t), but it’s also true that a good beer or other adult beverage among friends is the sort of “irrational drinking” that Chesterton praises — paradoxically, of course — for not being necessary. It simply wouldn’t be quite the same if we were all drinking bottled water. And, yes, because we are in Oregon, we are beer snobs. But, regardless, a solid pint and a good book always lead to a worthwhile conversation. And, in fact, we even once read and discussed “The Beer Option” by R. Jared Staudt.
While COVID-19 interrupted our group this past spring — and has affected how we’ve met since — the Northwest Neo-Inklings continues to turn the pages. And the focus and enjoyment remains the same.
“I thought I had been transported back in time,” Scott told me when I asked his thoughts about the reading group. “Catholic men sitting around drinking beer and discussing the Summa — this was new territory for me! It has truly deepened my faith being part of this amazing reading group with these amazing men.” I couldn’t say it better or ask for anything more.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.
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