Adventure No. 41 – Join or start a book club
The idea of a book club always sounded kind of interesting to me.
It seems perfect on paper. I read a lot, and I don’t really stick to one genre. I love to dig deep for books that probably haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. The problem with that is that it isn’t always easy to find people to chat with about the books I’ve read.
The thing with book clubs, is, and this may just be a marketing issue… they seem to mainly appeal to a demographic that I’m not really a part of. I know there’s some stereotyping going on here, but the first thing that pops into my mind when a book club is mentioned are women in their forties with tea cups talking about Madam Bovary. Why that book? No idea… that’s just the word-to-mental-image association I have.
That’s not exactly the sort of thing I’d want to sign up to do on a weekly basis. I would much rather discuss something timeless and mystic, like Thomas Merton’s writings. Or a piece of highly symbolic, meaning-rich, contemporary fiction like The Tiger’s Wife. Or any good bit of travel writing. No offense, Gustave Flaubert.
But, I don’t quite see the sort of books I like to read being pitched as fodder for book clubs too often.
Then, about a month ago, my church began asking people if they wanted to host book clubs. No book in particular, hosts would get to choose. It was an easy decision for Deanna and I to agree to. We’d both wanted to be part of a book club for quite some time.
Our first meeting started off with just one other couple besides us, but over time, two others joined in. We were told that 5-8 was actually a very ideal number for a book club, so we went ahead with it.
We decided to start meeting on Thursday evenings, which was a pretty decent way to add some fun into our weeknights. And while we did have tea, our book club was mostly made up of couples so it was satisfyingly co-ed.
I cut up a baguette I made and poured some pepper and olive oil. Since I had never done something like this before and wasn’t sure how the discussions were supposed to go, I wrote out some questions and conversation prompts just to be safe.
Our group decided on a book that was mostly proposed by myself. Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.
I still remember the very first time I read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years.
I bought the book right when it came out, already interested in Donald Miller from his earlier and more famous Blue Like Jazz. It ended up being one of those books that sat on my shelf for two years before I got around to actually reading it.
When I finally did read it, I wish I had gotten to it right away.
I was in Argentina at the time, living abroad for half a year. The year before was a huge one for me, personally. For the first time I really decided to embrace life, to take my faith seriously, and I had gotten my feet wet for living more adventurously and gratefully. That new mindset was what led me to Argentina in the first place.
I give the book a lot of credit for putting words to what I had discovered… the role of story in living a good life.
The idea was that the structure of a good story is that there’s a character who wants something and overcomes obstacles in order to get it, and that this same story structure applies to living a good life. The kind of life that makes you feel really, really grateful to be alive.
That idea really, really resonated with me as so true. I thought of numerous people who had lived lives I thought of as beautiful, from people I knew personally, family members, to more public figures with well-known legacies. Each of these people lived in the pursuit of a higher goal, and each had overcome significant challenges, things that Miller described as elements of a good story.
To say that this book was motivating would have been an understatement. It explained how our lives could be stories, comprised of subplots, and fit into an even greater narrative. In the book, Donald Miller begins to live in pursuit of a meaningful story by attending storywriter’s conferences and hilariously applies their principles to his actual life. That leads to him going on a search for his father, biking across the country, and hiking Machu Picchu.
Over the next few years, I became dedicated to the idea of living a good story. I doubt I was the only one. The phrase “living a good story” became a bit of a popular catchphrase, but I understood why.
It’s been five years since I read that book for the first time. The idea of living a good story took off, became a catchphrase, and challenged a lot of people to live differently, myself included.
But a lot has changed in that window of time. I got married. I traveled a little, then a lot, then I slowed it down. The things I found important in life shifted a little bit, and I learned that I don’t always need to look for good stories adventure in far places or extremely ambitious feats. More often than not they happen in everyday endeavors and in ordinary relationships if you know how to look for them.
So, when we decided to revisit A Million Miles in a Thousand Years for our book club, I wondered a few things… how would the book hold up? What would I see differently about living a good story? What lessons would be reinforced? Most of all, would I still be able to say that I’m living a good story or was it just a passing idea?
Well, the book holds up. I’ve been able to re-read the early chapters and I’ve been pretty impressed by how Miller presents such a big idea in a really accessible way. And there are a few things that five years later, I can say stand out a whole lot more.
For starters, I can say this– that a story matters because of the characters in the story. I guess that’s a way of saying that people matter, and they really do. Perhaps one of the few critiques I might have had of the “living a good story” mentality is that it seems to imply individualism, but that would be a misunderstanding of how much a story can exist within the relationship between two people.
The big thing that stands out to me after a reread five years later is this: good stories don’t follow formulas and clichés.
Of course this was such a well written story that I wanted to go on an epic journey as well, climb Machu Picchu and what not. And to a certain extent, I did. Not Machu Picchu, but I did do a good deal of traveling and adventuring, and I got the sense that I was part of a generation that really valued that sort of thing.
But in the process of pursuing passport stamps and mountaintop experiences, I gradually learned that there was just as much adventure to be found in more subtle things. Relationships, faithfulness to a goal, and living simply could be just as much of a good story if you know how to tell it.
Here’s my take on A Million Miles in a Thousand Years five years down the line.
It’s still a great book, and one of my all time favorites. It still does a really good and unique job at putting words to things we know deep down are important.
I still believe in the importance of living a good story and I think that whenever you see somebody who’s really doing it, it’s a really beautiful thing that reminds you what it’s all about.
The best storylines aren’t necessarily about the places you go or, but about what challenges you the most.
I think of people like my family members who have worked really hard at their jobs to provide better lives for other relatives, myself included. Their concerns at my age weren’t so much about places to travel to, but simply on how to stretch their earnings to support more, and yet, they’ve lived a great story.
I think of people with crazy life stories like Louie Zamperini, the subject of the book Unbroken. His main goal was simply surviving and returning home, but the obstacles he faced in the process were insane.
And when I think about myself, there have been times when my biggest challenges have been things like loneliness, feeling purposeless, and not having motivation. Going on further trips wasn’t the central challenge, only a means of overcoming.
One of the best ways to find a driving storyline in your life is to figure out what things are your biggest challenges.
These days, I’ve been faced with new sets of challenges. Figuring out how to be a good husband and supportive of Deanna through the ups and downs of our first year of marriage while being tested by work, schedules, stress, health, and finances, that’s a pretty big challenge. A fun and worthwhile one, yup. But it’s not always easy.
There’s also been the challenge of finishing up grad school through unmotivating times. There’s the challenge of figuring out how to further support the kids I’ve met in South Africa as they go from childhood to adulthood. And the challenge of trying to find an endeavor after grad school that ties all these things together.
I’m really thankful for the adventurous pursuits I’ve enjoyed… they really have made my life a better story. But the thing is, a life made up of random, assembled experiences without a purpose isn’t necessarily a good story, even if some of the experiences are really cool.
“Music obeys structure… it’s the same with story. I you don’t obey certain principles, the story doesn’t make sense. Without story, experiences are just random.”
– Donald Miller
And the best stories are the ones driven by purpose, more so than coolness.