In my recap of 20231 I quickly mentioned that I wanted to expand on my experience with the Proust Society of Greenwich,2 so here I am. I would also like to take this opportunity to reflect on what a book club should do for me.
I have always wanted to share my opinions on the things I love. I remember fondly the pre-Reddit age of internet fora and I still subscribe to mailing lists and newsletters for in-depth discussions without the ubiquitous distractions of today’s world wide web. My experience with a book or a film is not complete if I do not translate my feelings into words for someone to read or to hear. This urge to express my own mind is what has been driving me to search for book clubs over the past years. Since the Proust Society of Greenwich is the last one I joined, let me briefly describe the previous ones.
My very first book club since I have been living in this town was organised by a co-worker of my better half who wanted to make their students read books in their original language (English) in order to discuss them together (in English). I was not part of their group of students, but I asked if I could join anyway for the sake of reading and sharing comments. After a few meetings I sort of understood that the main aim of the book club was having students practice and improve their knowledge of the English language, which was not really the reason for me to be there. This is not to say that I do not need to improve my English, because I always do. Nonetheless, it was not what I had hoped for.
My second book club was organised by a nearby public library. This is a close-knit group of people, most of them part of the club since its beginnings back in the 2010s. That is why I entered a bit shyly, not really sure how to relate and what to add at first.3 Soon I started to fit in better, but I also realised that I was not enjoying the books that we were supposed to read and talk about. I tend to treasure the amount of time I have for my readings because, simply put, time is never enough. I cannot afford to waste it on books that do not work for me.
The third book club was one I pushed for. When I got the news that a philosophy book club was about to start not too far from where I live my expectations skyrocketed. Since I am not as close to the university campus as I wish, I do not have many people around me to discuss philosophy with. I wanted the book club to be the place for close readings and unpacking of theories, because, despite my years at Ca’ Foscari, I still feel like a novice in this regard. Unfortunately, the club turned out to be something different.
Open to everyone remotely interested in philosophy, it consisted in monthly chats on selected pages of books picked according to so-called themes (e.g., friendship, love, etc.). With little to no guidance from the organisers, the books were chosen from a list including philosophical, psychological, and literary works. Mostly people shared feelings about the content of the books and that was it. I offered some feedback to the organisers a couple of times, only to be ignored. Introducing philosophy to everybody is an admirable endeavor, but that was not what I had in mind.
After reading Proust’s La Recherche for the first time I just could not stop thinking about it.4 More importantly, I thought that what I had been really looking for in a book club was a group of people devoted to just one author or one book that seriously moves us. I had read wonders about an Infinite Jest marathon, for instance, but I could not find anything Proust-related in my country.5 A quick online research, however, pointed me to the right place. Fereshteh Priou, the person in charge of the Proust Society of Greenwich, kindly admitted me to the meetings and so it began.
We get together online once a month, 20-25 fellow Proust lovers. The aim is reading all seven volumes of La Recherce, a small selection of pages at a time. In this age of ever-decreasing attention span this is the right pace for such a demanding work. What really helps, though, is Priou’s vast knowledge of the subject. She singles out passages for us to discuss and she is never out of prompts to keep the words flying around. Most of the times I learn something new and yet I never feel discouraged to speak my mind. Moreover, we rarely lose focus and this is of immense value. Online meetings do not make it easy to stay constantly alert, but Priou keeps it all together nicely and in the end it always seems like one hour is way too short to share our love for Proust.
Eventually, finding myself among people who come with their own cultural background to an author or a book that everyone is at the very least interested in is the best place to spend my time while sharing my obsessions. We take it slow, we value the time spent on understanding the intricacies of Proust’s passages by paying close attention to them. This makes much more sense to me than sitting down to discuss a different book on each occasion. In the other clubs I mentioned above it was often the case that some member did not finish the book in time for the meeting, so they felt unable to add something meaningful to the conversation. Why constraint ourselves to a schedule instead of allowing us the precious and much needed moments to approach a book slowly, to parse it calmly, and savour it page after page?
On the other hand, my experience with the Proust Society of Greenwich leaves my quest for a philosophy book club open, but who knows. Some day, maybe. Some day.