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One of my favorite things about the last two years has been a new tradition started with my best friend from back home in Iowa–our weekly long-distance book club.
I don’t even remember whose idea it was but at some point in late 2016 we decided to start reading books together. We’ve both always been big readers, though reading purely for leisure had been hampered by our concurrent stints in grad school. But after the election in 2016, it seemed like the perfect time to pick this up. Like many other Americans, we were both feeling a little lost, and I think we both initially intended it to be an escape—a fun hobby to take our minds off current events. Of course, since we both have graduate degrees spanning the topics of American religion, politics, and the media, the book club quickly took on a new purpose–our “How to Be a Good Citizen Book Club.”
The idea for a long-distance book club began when the two of us ended up getting each other the same book for Christmas–Mike McHargue’s Finding God in the Waves (not the first time we’ve accidentally gotten each other the same gift). Initially supposed to be a one-time thing, we’ve now kept it going for nearly two years and many books. We’ve sustained it through finishing grad school, starting new jobs, and the general busyness of life. It just seemed too important to let it end. After we wrapped up Finding God in the Waves it seemed natural to pick up another book and start reading.
What started out as a casual book club soon turned into something more serious. We now fondly refer to it as our How to Be a Good Citizen Book Club. Over and over again, we would read a book together that we just could not stop thinking and talking about, to each other and to everyone else around us. So now we’re working on a small but growing list of books, a syllabus of sorts, that we feel are essential to understanding our current moment and to being an active, engaged, and informed member of society. So far the list includes books like Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and our most recent read, White Rage by historian Carol Anderson.
We’ve also been trying to read outside genres we’d normally tackle. We’re both big nonfiction readers so for us this has meant adding novels and memoirs to the mix. And this year, we made a concerted effort to read more works by authors of color. We read books by James Cone, Roxane Gay, Carol Anderson, and two young adult novels by Angie Thomas and Justina Ireland. It’s been a welcome and refreshing change of pace and something I’m ashamed we didn’t think of doing sooner.
The best part about our How to Be a Good Citizen Book Club is that it’s been a good way for me to think big picture and to work through the issues that are shaping our current moment. We spend so much bogged down in the daily insanity of current events that’s it sometimes hard to step back and figure out how we got into this mess and how we’re going to get out of it. Book club has been one of my coping mechanisms.
Reading collaboratively helps put everything into perspective, and it keeps me on my toes because we’re not just talking about the current book we’re reading but also the last five books we’ve read and whatever random articles we’ve been reading or podcasts we’ve listened to that week. More than that, it’s been empowering to think about what our responsibilities are to our fellow citizens, what our vision is for the country and the world, and how we’re going to get there.
It’s in this spirit of collaboration and curiosity, a defining feature of our book club, that I’m interested to hear what authors and books have most shaped your ideas of what it means to be a citizen. And if you had to choose just one or two of the most important books, what would they be? They just might get added to our list.