Group Reading

As I read along in Infinite Jest, I’ve been thinking about what it means to read a book with a group of people — in this case, a very large group. Even though I’m not actively contributing to the Infinite Summer forums, I’m following the discussions pretty closely and am learning a lot from what people write there. And then there are very, very informative and helpful posts at the Infinite Summer blog, such as this weekly summary, which lists chapters that the group has read so far with a plot synopsis for each one, as well as descriptions of characters encountered in each chapter. I didn’t realize the blog would be doing weekly summaries, and when I first encountered this week’s summary, I was thrilled to have a way to check whether I understood what was going on.

But it also feels a little like cheating. In a way, I feel like I should be reading this book all by myself to be reading it “properly.” It would be an entirely different experience to be reading it all on my own, without help from the blog and forums or any other kind of reading guide. A part of me feels that to have the true experience of reading this book, I should encounter just the text itself. It should be just me and the book, and I should try making of it what I can all on my own. Reading guides and groups and forums seem more fitting for the second time through, when I’ve had a chance to form my own opinions.

But then, I can be too much of a purist about reading and about life in general. I’m a little too obsessed with doing things the “right way,” and of course, there really is no one right way to read a book. I felt similarly uncomfortable using the Reader’s Guide to The Recognitions to help make sure I was understanding the basics of what was going on, as well as to explain the book’s allusions. But I have to say, I was very glad to have that guide available, and it made reading The Recognitions a better experience. I think having the Infinite Summer community available will make reading that book a better experience.

I wonder what the authors would say about these websites and groups. Perhaps they wouldn’t care how we read their novels, or perhaps they would prefer to have us confronting the text by itself, without any props or support systems or weekly summaries? Probably they would just be happy to have that much attention drawn to their work.

What do you think — are you a perfectionist kind of reader like I am?


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

17 responses to “Group Reading

  1. verbivore

    I’m also wary of too much “group” in my reading…for many of the same reasons but I’m also always very worried that I’ll be influenced by other people’s opinions and lost the ability to discern my first, primary reaction to a text.

    Having said all that, I’m quite jealous of your summer read and wish I had the time to join in.


  2. Reading with a group sounds fun, but I have never done it other than a few poetry classes in college and a science fiction class in high school (mumble, mumble) years ago.

    I guess I rarely ride bikes with others, and have only rock climbed solo, and…

    Yikes, I’ll stop before anyone starts analyzing my social behavior patterns.


  3. I never thought of it before, but I do not enjoy reading with a group. It’s part of the reason why I haven’t taken part in Slaves discussions recently. Whether it be pace, discussion or something else, I always feel more fulfilled reading on my own. But that’s not to say I get more out of it. In fact, I have been known to read synopsis or spoilers of books that I’m reading. I don’t read a book to get to the end. I read a book to enjoy the language, appreciate the characters and hopefully there’s a great plot.


  4. I like the type of group reading where each person reads & enjoys the book alone, and then after everyone’s finished, you can share your experiences. Sometimes other readers will see things I’ve missed and I’m glad to have them pointed out to me later.

    I’m not sure I would enjoy the type of reading you are describing in this post, where everyone is sharing thoughts as they read each chapter. I guess that makes me a purist too. The only exception I’d make would be using reading guides for difficult texts, so that I don’t miss what is happening…in high school, for example, I was mighty glad to consult the Cliff Notes occasionally while working my way through Shakespeare. They helped me appreciate his work a whole lot more than I could have otherwise.


  5. I suppose it all depends on the book for me. With the Slaves books I am glad we each read the book alone and then discuss it afterwards. But with big books that take extra work to read and appreciate, I don’t mind having help along the way. I don’t want the help to be constant, but more like rest stops along the way of a really long hike where I can stop and think and look around get my bearings and catch my breath, maybe have a bite to eat, before setting out again.


  6. For me, it depends not on the book, but the group!


  7. I’ve never tried to read with a group before but if it’s anything like when I study with a group, the result will probably be pretty ugly. Discussing a book after reading it is okay (isn’t that sort of what we do here?), but somehow stopping along the way and getting everyone else’s thoughts on the matter seems to rub off me the wrong way. I feel like I want to have my own opinion first – then let me hear what others have to say.


  8. I’m definitely a perfectionist in my reading (and everything else). The ideal would be to read a book on my own and to get everything out of it on the first go myself. However, I don’t delude myself. I know that I usually get more out of my reading experiences when I have someone to discuss them with. I guess that’s why I like book groups. I read the book on my own first and form my opinions, and then we get together to discuss it. This way, I have my legitimate feelings about the work and can compare/contrast with others. I always end up learning something that I hadn’t thought of before the discussion.


  9. Verbivore — you describe my hesitancy well. But then, I’d thought about reading the book this summer before I even knew about the site, and it was just too perfect to pass up. And there’s no reason I can’t have a different sort of reading experience now and then, something other than solitary reading.

    Bikkuri — oh, I know what you mean! Let’s not do too much self-analysis here 🙂 I do so much solitary reading, though, that doing it with a group is fun for a change.

    Mike — I don’t really read to get to the end either, although I would avoid spoilers, as figuring out the story is one of the pleasures of reading, I think. But I know what you mean about group reading — I like it now and then but wouldn’t want it all to be like that. Maybe years of college and grad school have gotten me used to reading with others — I’d say I feel more fulfilled when I can discuss a book — which is why I blog!

    Debby — well, this is exactly the sort of book it really helps to have a guide for. I agree about preferring to read first and discuss afterward, but this book is dense enough to justify getting some help. I’m still wedded to the idea of solitary reading first, though, which is why I feel a bit uncomfortable. But not uncomfortable enough to refrain from participating in the group! I think what we’re doing here is equivalent to consulting Cliff Notes or something similar; it’s just more active and participatory.

    Stefanie — nice metaphor! I like the voluntary nature of the blog and the forums, so I can check them out when I want to and only then. It helps to give me energy and motivation and to clarify some things, and then I’m back at it! I agree our method works best for the Slaves books.

    Amateur Reader — well, perhaps it depends on both? It does for me, at least.

    Biblibio — oh, studying with other people is a complete nightmare. But this feels entirely different — not least because I can participate as much or as little as I like. I do worry about other people’s opinions rubbing off on me as I go along, but that’s a worry I’m willing to deal with.

    Lisa — I try not to delude myself either — I’m definitely getting more out of the book because of the reading group than I would otherwise. I generally prefer the model you describe where you read first and then discuss, but this is a tough enough book I think it justifies a different method. We’ll see how I feel by the end!


  10. For me it depends on the book. For the few Shakespeare plays I’ve read I like to read a synopsis after each act to make sure I understood what happened. I like how the Slaves group works–each person reading the book individually and then offering their opinions and thoughts after the fact. I think for a big book like Infinite Jest I might do it like you are–reading on my own but checking in and seeing what others think. Since I don’t have an English degree background I don’t mind ‘cheating’ a little bit along the way-I hate feeling lost and if I can clarify something as I read I feel much more that I can then make my own connections. I didn’t realize so many people were reading together–I’ll have to check out your forums–it’s interesting when it’s such a big group (I’ve never read a book in a situation like that).


  11. I have a strong visceral reaction against reading guides, especially for a first time through. A friend of mine said that she hated Ulysses “even though” she read it simultaneously with a reading guide and a Homer-Joyce concordance. I felt like “Of COURSE you didn’t enjoy it with that much baggage holding you down!” But, of course, everyone’s experience is different.

    I’m reading Bolaño’s 2666 with a group of bloggers, and that’s adding a lot to my experience. But it’s also changing my experience – more like my reading is happening under a glass, and I’m less free to make it uniquely my own, somehow. Not better or worse; just different.


  12. My husband and I are on opposite ends of the scale with this one. He’ll let projects stall and fail rather than ask for another’s advice. If he goes about an intellectual task he pulls the drawbridge up first. Once (and only once) I made a strong suggestion. ‘You’re trying to colonise my thought’ he grumbled. I, on the other hand, love reading up on other people’s opinions and can’t get enough of them. I find it fascinating to see how other people respond to a book or feel about it. Doesn’t mean I won’t be frustrated sometimes, or think I’m right and they’re wrong (alas). It took me a long time as a student to stop needing to hear someone else’s opinion on a book before I could venture my own.

    When it comes to stories, though, I guess we always encounter them alone in the first instance. Even sitting around in a group hearing a story read out loud, it’s the private echo chamber of the mind that receives it first. And thank goodness, no one has to make crucial decisions based on what a novel means, so we can all have our own interpretations in peace! 🙂


  13. Danielle — I’ve never read a book in this way before either, with the possible exception of the Proust and Gaddis groups I was a part of, but those were much smaller with fewer posts and no discussion boards. I like the energy and enthusiasm about the project the big group creates — it creates a kind of excitement that feels unique. I agree that with difficult books, it’s nice to be able to check with something or someone just to see how I’m doing.

    Emily — I can see the problem with reading guides. With Gaddis, I stopped reading the annotations eventually — all the explanations of allusions — and stuck to reading the plot summary to make sure I was getting everything. I got tired of all the esoteric knowledge Gaddis was drawing on. Yes, without it I wasn’t getting everything, but I was enjoying it more. With Infinite Jest, I’m liking the solidarity of experiencing something with a whole lot of other people.

    Litlove — interesting how you and your husband are different! I’m more like you and I’m curious about other people’s opinions, even if I do worry about losing the intensity of my own now and then. But you’re right that even reading with a group along the way, the initial impression is still mine. Mostly the effect of reading the forums is to confirm what I have already been feeling — yes, that section is confusing, or no, it’s not clear what’s going on there, or whatever. That’s often what happens in class too — students have their tentative ideas confirmed by hearing that other people felt the same way.


  14. I guess all literature classes are essentially group readings, especially seminars–so I have a vested interested in believing that this kind of experience can enhance, rather than detract from, the individual experience of reading! I find that reading something new is always a learning experience, in that I have to learn how to read it (which writer/critic was it who said that every book teaches us how to read it?). I really like Wayne Booth’s idea of “coduction,” which is his coinage for the process we go through when we evaluate or analyze literature: it’s an ongoing conversation, rather than a rigid expression of fixed positions. At their best, I think this is what group readings enable.

    Speaking of group readings, we’re starting one of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette at The Valve on Tuesday, if anyone is interested in joining in. We’re reading just the first 8 chapters for July 7.


  15. This is my first go at a “group” or online reading. I’m happy enough so far, keeping pretty close view on forums I’m interested in, though the “guides” have not yet “guided” much of anything. It also stimulated me to begin a blog, something that’s been on my mind for a while, that I can start with IJ commentary and then next Fall shift over to other topics in Philosophy, Lit, and Culture. It’s at

    I still don’t really see it as a true “group reading,” even with all the participants, mostly because the discussions are still focused around (1) subjective preferences regarding certain passages, and (2) keeping track of various themes or events and their interrelations, which is a handy reference but not a collaborative intellectual project. Of course, this may change over time, as we head deeper into the novel.


  16. My experience with group readings is also literature classes, and my approach to those was always to read the entire book before the discussion. I would just note the cut-off point for the assignment and not include anything past it in my talking points. If something comes up that has you questioning your initial take, you can always reread the book or parts of it with that in mind before the next meeting. However, the longest thing I ever read for class was Middlemarch, and Infinite Jest makes that look like a short story. The approach I used probably isn’t feasible.

    I guess a book like that highlights the strengths and weaknesses of reading groups. On the one hand, you get the social motivation to push yourself through a remarkably dense and challenging work that you might have trouble making it through on your own. On the other, though, you run into the things mentioned in the post. I don’t know.

    In any case, have fun with the book. It really comes together in the second half.


  17. Rohan — as a teacher, I absolutely agree with you about group reading experiences, although what I have in mind here feels less like a class where students complete the reading and then discuss it afterward, as opposed to discussing it in a lot of detail as we go along. Although it could be like the kind of class that focuses on one novel all semester, like Ulysses for example. Anyway, I love the idea of each book teaching one how to read, and it’s interesting to think about how the particular book and the reading circumstances can combine to teach one how to read. It becomes even more complicated that way.

    Infinitetasks — I’ve been disappointed in the guides — they are more like companions than guides, really, and I wish they had more substantive things to say. But the forums have been helpful. How great that the experience inspired you to start your blog!

    Robert — I’m very glad to hear about the book’s second half! I usually followed the syllabus exactly and wouldn’t finish books ahead of time, but generally we were assigned the entire thing before the discussion began, with some exceptions for books like Ulysses and Paradise Lost. In those cases, the class felt more like what we are doing with IS.


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