The WWI Book Club: The War That Ended Peace

A snippet from a recent conversation:
Guy: Downton Abbey is just a crap period drama.
Me, hackles up: It’s a very well-done “crap period drama” that prides itself on historical accuracy.
Guy: Ooohhh, what is it? Victorian England?
Me: It takes place between 1912 and 1924.
Guy, perplexed: What historically interesting happened in England then?
Me, choking: Uhh… WWI, dude!
WWI, dismissively: Why would they focus on WWI? England wasn’t affected by WWI.

Needless to say, he isn’t part of the WWI book club I belong to (although maybe he should be). When I relayed this to the club’s other member, her response mirrored mine: “WHAT?!? How can he say that?!?” followed by much sputtering.

So, yes. This “club” is only made up of the two of us. How many lines of people do you see who want to spend a year reading about WWI? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can imagine what you’re thinking, “Where’d you guys meet? A nerd convention?” She and I have been friends for several years and belong to another book club together (an art book club, to up the nerdiness ante). We had often talked about spending a year reading books all about one subject, but since we both have interests that reach far and wide, which subject to choose? We knew that we both had studied WWI before and decided that we could further our knowledge. It is also apropos as we are in the hundredth anniversary of that war.

How does one embark on such a feat? (Because maybe you’d like to start a book club of two…) Like the generals in the war, we needed a plan of attack. However, it couldn’t be like the Schlieffen Plan that didn’t allow for change or revision. It also had to fit into our daily lives that include other book clubs (and in my case, teaching). We have decided to read eight books: four works of history and four memoirs that represent different perspectives. Since the works of history tend to be longer (600+ pages), we will take two months to read to read them, while the shorter memoirs get a month. We meet once a month to discuss what we’ve read. The way I found some of the titles was by searching a book about WWI on Amazon and seeing what others purchased; I’d click on one from that list and it would lead me to another list and so on and so forth. Based on the descriptions, I’d add it my interest list. Goodreads also provided many recommendations.

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Our first book was Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. MacMillan’s premise is to understand why and how Europe, which seemed to be moving towards a society of peace and progress, all of the sudden blew up into total war. So imagine a 1900 map of Europe under a microscope through which MacMillan’s eye peers and studies the minute actions at play under the surface. Like a scientist she gathers the information to discover the under-lying symptoms of the disease of war. She provides in depth character studies not just of the leaders, but also of society in how the growing labor movements, the rise of public opinion, and the shifting roles of the aristocracy helped prime people for war.

Often times in history classes one hears generally about alliances, militarism, and nationalism, and then boom! one day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, some dude from the Austria-Hungarian Empire is killed by some anarchist in some city and all of Europe falls apart. It’s a tenuous reason for millions to die and the possible end to Western civilization at best, but MacMillan does an excellent job showing how these forces developed and reacted over time through different countries’ decisions and skirmishes in Morocco and the Balkans to finally end in war. She tries to weigh how much of the war was the fault of “great men”– those in power– and that of forces hurdling towards conflict. Between 1900-1914, European nations had consistently used bluff and brinkmanship in their skirmishes, and each time they got closer and closer to war, and while she proves that they always had choices to avoid war, was it ultimately inevitable?

What I found most interesting was how many people had the foresight to understand what a long, bloody battle this war would be. Unfortunately, none were in charge of the militaries or countries and their views were often discounted.

MacMillan’s style is clear and easy to read. Each paragraph has a clear point followed by interesting and relevant evidence. She has a knack for finding interesting and funny quotes and for connecting issues if the past to issues in our modern times. The first half of the book sets up her argument on the state of Europe and the second half proves it (for us, the first half was more interesting as the second half was more military talk and policy). I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how countries at peace can suddenly end up at war.

March memoir: e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room

Readers: What book (or novel) about WWI do you recommend and why?

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Being a nerd, I didn’t want to show up to book club with nothing to say…

Clubbing: Reader Style

It was our first meeting and we stared at each other anxiously.  We all loved the book, but who would start and what would we say?  Even though we all knew each other and were comfortable together, the discussion lurched in fits and starts as everyone cautiously shared their thoughts on the book.  Out of the five of us, I was the book club veteran, having been in different clubs in the past and am currently in four others (a logistical feat), and our unease confounded me.  At all of my other book clubs we just started talking about the book; it was an organic process, a grown-up Socratic Seminar where we built upon each other’s ideas.  There really weren’t any “rules”, I thought.  However, once you call something a “Club”, even if it’s just in name only, “rules” are implied, like “no boys allowed!”.  Our meeting lacked liveliness because I assumed we’d just start talking; the other members weren’t certain what to do.

Book clubs should be organic– they are a wonderful venue for discussing ideas, learning from others, and building bonds.  They are also like Christmas: each book a surprise that leads to new interests and perspectives (although some books are the equivalent of receiving scratchy underwear from your grandma).  But they are also made up of people– as varied as the books that are read– and for this reason, there are some “rules” to having a successful book club.

Logistics:  

1. Getting Started: It’s easy!  Invite a group of friends, select a book, set a date, determine a location, bring some food, and voilà!  You have a book club.  No applications, W-2s, or blood tests necessary.

2. How Many?: Anywhere between 5-7 members is good.  This way if a couple cannot show up, there are still enough members to have a discussion; if all show up, everyone will still have enough time to share. (Although, the summer the last Harry Potter novel was released, my friend Jessica and I had a book club of two as we reread all of the series and crying when it was all over.)

3. How Often?  Most meet once a month, but one of mine meets about every six weeks or so.  Make sure there’s ample time to get and read the book.

4. Setting A Date: There a couple of ways to do this. My art book club meets the first Thursday of each month and whoever can make it shows up.  Selecting a specific day each month may work for your group.  My other groups decide at the end of each meeting, so we can check our calendars.  One word of wisdom: once you set a date, keep it.  If someone can’t make it, they can’t make it.  If everybody can’t make it, then reschedule.

5. Where?: Anywhere!  Open up your home.  Meet at a coffee shop.  Have a picnic in the park.

6. Communication: Select someone to be the coordinator.  The coordinator is the one who sends out the email reminders to the rest of the group.  If you are not the coordinator, please respond to the coordinator’s emails or texts.  A terrific website for book clubs is Bookmovement.  It is a website that shows what other book clubs are reading, provides ideas and an “e-vite” reminder for all of your members.

7. To Theme or Not To Theme?: Some book clubs are based on themes or genres. I belong to an art book club and read all kinds genres about art.  One of my friends belongs to a club that only reads memoirs; another to one about politics and current events.  The benefit of a theme group is that it caters to a specific interest of which each member is knowledgable.  Together they increase their knowledge and can compare one author’s ideas to another’s.  My other clubs read anything and everything.  This is a lot of fun, because we don’t know what the next book will be. Our interests are so disparate, but we are connected through our love of reading and learning.

Discussions: 

1. Read the book (it helps!):  Remember this is a BOOK Club, not a Wine and Cheese Club (although wine and cheese are lovely accouterments).  Sometimes life gets in the way, and finishing the book is just an impossibility. It happens.  When this happens, still attend the meeting (because the other members still want to enjoy the pleasure of your company),but have something to say or ask.  Sometimes the book is a dud or something you want to use for target practice.  Read it anyway.  The cloying and saccharine Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the dense and convoluted Tiepolo Pink, and the second-person present-tense Wolf Hall were all struggles to read, but having finished them gave me much more to say.

2.  Determine how your discussions will be run:  Will the person who suggested the book be in charge of leading the discussion or will it be a free-for-all?  Out of the two, I favor the free-for-all.  Many of the members like to “nerd out” and research different topics about the book, and in the free-for-all format, everyone has an opportunity to share without it infringing on the “discussion leader’s” time or plans.  For the free-for-all, each member selects quotes, information, or fun facts that they want to discuss.

3. Be considerate and determine what you, yourself, want to say: This is a subjective “rule” based on a pet peeve of mine: those who hog the discussion. There is really nothing more annoying than taking the time to read a book, jotting down discussion notes, selecting an item to bring as a snack, and traveling to a meeting only to have someone blurt out every idea he/she had about the book, some being the ones you and others wanted to bring up.  You end up being like the kid in class with your hand raised only to have the teacher call on the “know-it-all” who has to share everything he/she knows, and when you’re finally called on, all you can say is, “He/she said what I was going to say.”  To avoid having a monopoly on ideas, choose a couple that you really want to discuss and allow others to share their own.  Most likely, they will bring up the other ideas you had and you’ll still be able to discuss them.

3.  Selecting your first book:  It is really important that the first book chosen is something that would appeal to a wide range of interests and have something juicy enough to talk about.  Some first books that I can remember are Chris Bohjalian’s Midwives, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, and Michael Hainey’s After Visiting Friends.

4. Selecting the next book: Bring a title that you would like everyone to read for the following meeting and share why it’s interesting to you. Sometimes selecting a new book is easy, everyone gravitates to a certain book. (If this book is something that you don’t want to read, suck it up, and read it anyway.  It may be your next favorite.)  Sometimes it’s hard; when it’s hard, write all the suggested titles on scraps of paper and draw one from a hat.  One time we had six books suggested, so we numbered them one through six, rolled a dice, and whichever number came up, that’s the book we read.

Reading alone is one of life’s great joys; sharing and learning from others is another joy.  Book clubs open up worlds and perspectives and provide connections and friendships.  If you’re not part of one, I encourage you start one.

Readers: Do you belong to a book club?  What advice do you have?  What are some of your favorite club memories?  What books elicited the most lively discussion?