Beyond my comfortable book club

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My mother refers to the women in my book club as "the hens." We're stay-at-home moms, for the most part, with 18 young children among the seven of us. We used to have one "chick" among us, but she flew the coop to try acting in Los Angeles. (Some might say she took the one voice of reason with her....)

Needless to say, we don't get out much. So our once-a-month club meetings have become sacred. As an ex-academic wannabe, I crave that cerebral exchange, that questioning of boundaries, that search for new ideas. Or maybe it's just something as basic as conversation beyond diapers.

Bottom line: We're each incredibly blessed.

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We live in an affluent, safe suburb with easy access to a major city, and we are all so materially comfortable as to want for nothing - which puts us in major peril of becoming complacent, overly contented housewives. This is not to say we don't have full schedules. Keeping up with the needs of young kids and often-absent husbands can be exhausting, both mentally and physically. And maybe when that last baby has just been born is not the best time to join the Peace Corps in a ravaged country.

Closer to home, between car pools, school auction committees, and feeding the kids better than Ronald McDonald, the little time left over allows for maybe a few hours of occasional volunteer work at the very most, or writing a check to our favorite charities at the very least.

So at this point in our lives, we have to start reaching beyond our cloistered, blessed lives with small gestures.

Which brings us back to book club. In the past five years, book clubs have become ubiquitous, in large part thanks to Oprah and her supreme book club of book clubs. I don't think I know too many women who aren't part of some club or another. Churches, community groups, radio shows, and even newspapers offer them. Publishers cater to book clubs with numerous titles that come bound with a readers' section, complete with probing questions in case you're too lazy to think of your own.

Without a doubt, book clubs have attained the status of a pop-culture phenomenon.

What a perfect, convenient, available venue, then, for change - for changing our thoughts, our opinions, our surroundings ... for changing our world. Because it's through the endless possibilities of books that we can reach beyond our own myopic, blessed existences. What can be more transporting than a good book?

And why not make it worth the journey - it's a precious one night a month out, after all, and there's always the potential to change someone's life.

Meetings filled with "Wow, I never thought of it that way" or "I never knew that" are bound to be the most challenging, memorable, and enjoyable evenings.

Case in point: In the past few months, our club has witnessed more than a few grumblings over past book choices. Comments such as, "Oh, that might be too serious for me," or, "That sounds too brutal," or "I can't do that one, it'll give me nightmares," led to the months we wasted on "Amy and Isabelle," which everyone hated, "Evensong," which put many of us to sleep, and "Rules of the Wild," which people wanted to toss. They were, respectively, about a whining mother-and-daughter pair, a female minister thinking about possibly leaving her dull marriage, and a spoiled white woman flouncing around in deep dark Africa - where's the challenge in any of that?

The books that did provide the best discussions, and consequently, some further reverberations beyond our tight little group, were usually those that were furthest from our everyday lives: "Half and Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial and Bicultural," edited by Claudine Chiawei O'Hearn; "A Gesture Life," by Chang-rae Lee, about a man's haunting relationship with a comfort woman in Japan during World War II; and "Caucasia," by Danzy Senna, about a girl raised by her white mother, searching for her sister who was raised by their African-American father.

This is where we start to venture out. These books contain some of the ideas we can pass on to our children, regardless of age.

If such lessons could be distilled in mere simple phrases for even the youngest soul, perhaps it would go something like this: Be kind to those who seem so different from you, ask about their experiences, listen carefully, ask more questions, exchange ideas, share yourselves.

Does that sound so naive? Maybe we don't take them into the Peace Corps now, but we begin to teach them (and ourselves) greater tolerance for difference.

How better to teach them than by modeling that behavior ourselves.

So when you go back to your next book club, reach outward and touch someone or something thoroughly unfamiliar. Learn all you can. And pass those lessons on to those around you. We all started with baby steps. We just need to keep reading, then reaching and growing beyond what is comfortable and familiar.

T. Y. Hong is a contributing editor for aMagazine: Inside Asian America.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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