A few months ago, when The Stranger had a full staff, when we were still producing a print issue, and when everyone thought quarantining against the coronavirus would last three or four weeks, I started a book club on Slog. For topical reasons and because I remembered it as a good book, I chose The Plague by Albert Camus. A bunch of people joined in (remember these photos?).
But over the next few weeks, a giant chasm of crisis and despair opened up beneath the feet of every person I know, and swallowed up jobs, businesses, lives, hope, you name it. As The Stranger plunged into a freefall of unknowns, and the silent-reading party emerged as a lifeline for people seeking connection and peace, The Plague book group got back-burnered among my projects. I also began to regret choosing it: It was grim reading material, and why weren't there any important women characters?
Doing that version of a quarantine book club, I also learned that holding discussions through Slog comments isn't the most efficient way to interact with people. So! I've figured out a new way to do the book club, via Zoom. It will not be free, but you will get much more out of the experience. And I've selected a better book for us to read.
The title is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the author is Muriel Spark, and it's one of the best novels ever written.
What's so great about it? Lots of things:
1) It's only 187 pages.
2) It's goddamn brilliant.
3) All the characters in it are women or girls, with the exception of two minor male characters.
4) It's darkly funny and full of satisfying tension.
5) It has nothing to do with plagues or rats or fevers.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a captivating story of betrayal. Modern Library lists it as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century, and so does The Guardian and Time magazine. It was eventually made into a movie starring Maggie Smith, who won a best actress Oscar for playing Miss Jean Brodie. At the end of the four weeks, we will watch the movie together, and compare it to the book.
I just taught The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as a book-club class at Hugo House over the course of four weeks this past winter, and it went really well, all the students loved the book, and one of them, amazingly, was the bestselling novelist Maria Semple.
“I adored this class, and this perfect little novel. Christopher’s passion and insight left me near-delirious with an excitement and optimism I’ve since carried into all my reading and writing,” Maria said afterward.
I loved teaching this class so much, and I want to make it accessible to as many people as possible, so I'm offering it (just like we do the silent-reading party) on a sliding scale, from $75 to $150, for the four weeks. Pay what you can. Reserve your spot here.
To answer the next couple questions that I know are on your mind...
When will these classes/meetings take place?
On Saturdays at 10 am PST, or 1 pm EST.
How long is each class/meeting?
An hour and a half, or possibly up to two hours, if we get going on a good discussion.
What is the format of each class?
I will lecture for the first 45 minutes or so, and then we will discuss the book through Q&A with using Zoom's "raise your hand" feature.
OK, but I work Saturday mornings.
No problem—we're also going to record each class/meeting and if you can't make it to the live Zoom session, you can watch the recordings on your own time, as long as you're a ticket-holder.
When does this start?
May 30, the last Saturday in May. And it will meet weekly each Saturday until June 20.
How many pages a week will we be expected to read?
About 60 pages a week.
Will I have to pay more to watch the movie at the end of the four weeks?
Does Hugo House know you're doing this?
Yes, and I have their blessing.
Will you be doing more books after this?
If this goes well, yes.
Who did that drawing of Muriel Spark at the top of this post?
The amazing illustrator Kathryn Rathke. It's a watercolor, and it was a birthday gift to me years ago, from Kathryn, who is a friend and who knows I love Muriel Spark. It hangs on the wall in the same room where I write.
Is there a certain edition of the novel I should buy?
Nope, any edition is fine. Choose a cover that is pleasing to your eye. I prefer reading paperbacks, but everyone is different.
Are there any booksellers you recommend?
I strongly suggest you support your neighborhood bookstore. Amazon book deliveries take weeks and weeks now, and you might not get it in time.
Can't I just check it out from the library?
Absolutely, if your library is open.
Is there anywhere else I can get it?
Yes, actually, if you are a New Yorker subscriber you can find it in their digital archive. As with Hiroshima and a couple other 20th century masterpieces, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was published in full in a single issue of The New Yorker, back in October 1961.
Should I read up on the book or the author before the first class?
Nope, you will enjoy the book more if you go into the material cold, having no idea what's coming.
I've been in book clubs before and they were awful. Is this going to be any better?
Yes. I know what you mean about book clubs, because I've been in a few failed book clubs myself over the years (structureless, dull, heavy with small talk, a waste of time). This will not be like that. This will be more like a class—but fun and approachable. Participation in discussions will be entirely opt-in. But through the magic of Zoom, it will feel like we're actually in a room together talking about a book, rather than typing out Slog comments with no idea who's listening.
OK, I'm in, where do I sign up again?