I’ve been close with my dear friend Betsy since high school, our connection spanning three decades now and thousands of miles. Betsy, a high school educator, lives in Alaska, and I work as a newspaperman in Louisiana. Among our common bonds are books. All of our conversations – whether by phone or during our rare personal visits to each other – include talk of what we’ve read, what we’re reading now, what we plan to read soon.
But never, in our many years of friendship, have we ever shared the same book at the same time.
Until now, that is. We’ve just started a two-person book club, and most of the discussion unfolds in bite-sized smart phone texts. I can understand why you’d think that texting might be anathema to the literary experience – I would have thought so, too – but the format features qualities that have helped, rather than hindered, my appreciation of literature. Maybe, if you try it, you might feel the same way.
All of this began late last year, when HBO aired a lively adaptation of “Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout’s collection of linked stories about the emotionally severe title character, a small-town school teacher, and her earnestly cheerful pharmacist husband, Henry.
Olive sees her generally dark view of the world as a sign of emotional intelligence, and Henry’s upbeat sensibility as hopelessly clueless. Strout’s narrative invites us to consider our own vision of life, and what mix of Olive’s vinegar and Henry’s honey might add up to true wisdom.
HBO brought all of this beautifully to the small screen, with Frances McDormand as Olive and Richard Jenkins as Henry. The production inspired me to buy the book, and to suggest it to Betsy. Then I wondered: Why not read the book together?
We started at Christmas, and informally agreed not to chat about “Olive” until after we’d both finished. But that plan quickly broke down as Betsy, eager to offer quick takes on Strout’s stories, began firing off texts as she worked her way through the book.
Texting, as it turned out, was the perfect way to express our gut reactions to Strout’s handiwork – a kind of first draft of our responses. Those texts, reviewed at leisure, set a foundation for deeper rumination on Strout's prose. In this way, a digital medium often dismissed for its superficiality didn’t co-opt reflection, but actually nurtured it.
No one could have been more surprised than I was, given my general skepticism about technology.
Texting has also allowed Betsy and me to connect conveniently across time zones – something not always easy given our busy households. Because of our hectic schedules, we’ve been taking our time getting through “Olive Kitteredge.” We’ll finish up at some point with a phone date, then plan our next book.
The Transcontinental Texting Book Club might not work for everyone, but it’s been a great new part of 2015 for me.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”