Island Books, my favorite local bookstore, hosts a regular book group based on the choices of our fearless leader, Pat. Each month we read her selection and then get together at the store to talk about it, fortified by a themed homemade sweet of some sort. For January it was Korean cookies, because we read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (a five hundred page family epic about Koreans living in Japan, which covers most of the 20th century).
I won’t get into the details of what was said, because what happens in book group stays, yanno, in book group. What I want to explore is the wide variety of opinions readers can have about the same story. We usually agreed if a character was “good” or “bad” or (best of all), a mix of both. Everything else wasn’t so easy, like how much to read into hints and foreshadowing; what wasn’t quite on the page was dismissed by some, latched onto fiercely by others. Motivations, themes. What made us mad at characters; what parts we liked best. It was a respectful and at times amusing conversation, but the only consensus we came to was this: reading the book was a great way to learn about a culture that was very foreign to most of us.
I spend most of my waking hours thinking about writing; how to get across the story I’m trying to tell. Reading is mostly a bedtime escape from heavy thinking—though I do notice when other writers do something that seems effortless, but isn’t. In the case of Pachinko, it was the seamlessly shifting points of view. In the middle of a scene we’d move from one perspective to another, a technique called “head-jumping” that is considered an absolute no-no (at least for beginners). Somehow this author made each transition work, without distracting from the story.
We never talked about that at book group, because for most readers technique that doesn’t bog down a book is pretty much invisible. It was an excellent reminder that it’s too easy to get focused on the process of writing, losing sight of the audience we’re trying to reach. If we do our jobs well, readers will remain happily oblivious to pacing, exposition, and other writerly tools. They are worthy of our trust, and the time we invest. And it will be simply impossible to please all of them.
Now, on to the next book.
Find out more about Island Books
Read more about Min Jin Lee and Pachinko, which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award.