book clubThis essay initially appeared
in the Chicago Tribune on 7.27.14.

When I was a young man, I reveled in my physical strength and intellectual acuity. Today, I’m very aware of my fragility.

When I was younger, I was hungry for new mountains to climb, new monsters to slay, and I was certain I could achieve any goal.

Today, at the age of 64, I’m very aware that I may not accomplish what I have set out to do, either because I just don’t have the talents or commitment or energy — or because I run out of time.

And I’ve come to the realization that, fragile and inadequate as I am, I can better face my remaining years as part of a group — as part of many groups, actually.

I’m sure this is a big reason why I’ve gotten even closer to my 13 siblings.

And why I play basketball every Sunday and Monday with different groups of guys. And why I’m in two all-male faith-sharing groups. And why I’m in a writers group.

And why I’m in two book clubs.

The truth about book clubs

My experience in both groups — and an observation often made by other members — is that some of the best discussions are rooted in books that, according to some or many of the group, weren’t very good.

The truth about book clubs, often overlooked, is that they’re not about books. They’re about life.

Not just talking about life. But living life.

How the world works and how people live

The History Book club members at our 20th anniversary party, also attended by Abe and Mary Lincoln.

The History Book club members at our 20th anniversary party, also attended by Abe and Mary Lincoln.

In one of my book clubs, we read history books. Our discussions tend to focus on how the world works: How do politics play into the action of history? And the personalities of leaders, and the collisions between ethnic groups, and the striving of minority segments of the population for full rights? And chance?

We’ve been meeting for more than 20 years, and we’ve become a kind of family. We’ve rejoiced at one another’s new jobs and new houses, and comforted members who suffered the death of a parent and, in one case, the death of a child. One of our members was cut down by a heart attack on the front steps of his home, where we’d met several times.

The Soon-to-be-Renamed Diogenes Book Club after our 9th anniversary meeting.

The Soon-to-be-Renamed Diogenes Book Club after our 9th anniversary meeting.

book club combo --- 2In the other book group, I’m one of the youngest members. And, having joined five years ago, I was the newest member until very recently. We read a lot of novels and an interestingly odd assortment of nonfiction works.

Most of the members are writers or creative types of one sort or another. When I started, I knew two guys and had a nodding acquaintance with a couple of others. Now, I think of each member as a friend.

Reading novels, we tend to look at how people live — what makes them tick, how they come to decisions, how they face life with all its rabbit-punches and caresses.

We’ve talked fairly openly about our feelings even though that doesn’t fit the stereotype of a bunch of guys. Maybe it’s because we’re all feeling that fragility I mentioned earlier. One of our members died in January 2012, at the age of 71. Another just had a liver transplant.

We tend to listen

What’s also striking about the guys in both groups is that we tend to listen to one another.

To be sure, some guys are louder than others. We interrupt, we talk over one another. But, generally, everyone who wants to say something eventually gets to say something. Group members will shush the more vocal among us so that a more soft-spoken comment can be heard.

Generally, when voices are raised, it’s because people are excited about their insights, not because they want to crush an opponent. Yes, we can be boorish — we are guys, after all — but usually we’re fairly civilized.

As immodest as it may sound, I have to tell you that we are wise men — wise in years, wise in experience, wise in curiosity — who are noodling at these books to understand the life we’re living.

Together in a lifeboat

We are debating with the book and one another to figure out who we are.

For a couple hours, we are together in a lifeboat, looking out over the vast ocean of life. We laugh and we debate, and there’s not a lot of room for posturing. And, certainly, there’s always someone ready to burst a pompous bubble.

barnes --- history of world --- detail

We are afflicted — individually and as a group — with curiosity. What does it all mean? Why are we here?

We know we’ll never find the answer. But we keep searching. Together.

Patrick T. Reardon

Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is


  1. James Coaates August 28, 2014 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    Next book for STBRDC should be “Quiet,” the recent treatment of the state of being an introvert by Susan Cain. You can read “Quiet” without fear of burning ears, but for me it damn near caught my sideburns on fire.
    All those clubs, Patrick me boy. All that noise. Raging egos. Wild humor makers. Sullen lapsed Catholics (moi). Eau d’cheap aftershave.
    This book club is my only current membership in anything beyond my family and Medicare. I share your sense of its value and do relish those meetings.
    Then I go home and paint, or write or mess around making lame videos.
    A jack of many tasks and a master of none.
    This is the way I approach the looming void. Yours is different.
    I really enjoyed this essay.

    • Patrick T. Reardon August 28, 2014 at 9:14 pm - Reply

      Jim — We’re all approaching that void (or whatever) in our own ways. Still, we share the need to make the trip. As Sherwin Nuland says in his great book “How We Die” — in my paraphrase — if we didn’t have an end, every day would be incredibly boring. The fact that we have an end means every day is precious, whether reading or talking or painting or making videos, lame or otherwise. Glad you liked the essay. Pat

    • Melissa Allison September 16, 2014 at 10:25 am - Reply

      It’s such a pleasure to see Patrick Reardon and my one-time colleague Jim Coates here, and to see your pictures and hear what you’re talking about and doing. I love my book club for similar reasons. Thank you for the reminder that it’s really about the people and not the books.

      • Patrick T. Reardon September 16, 2014 at 11:23 am - Reply

        Thanks, Melissa. Book clubs, I think, are, in a way, a response to the Bowling-Alone phenomenon. We’re so often alone in modern life that we need communities like this. Hope all is well with you and David. Pat

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