Earlier this summer Amy Welborn announced an online book club that would discuss the new novel, Exiles, by Ron Hansen, a novel about Gerard Manly Hopkins and his poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, about the death of five German nuns who died in a shipwreck off the coast of England. The book club would not only discuss the novel; but use it as a launching point from which to examine questions about “Catholic fiction”—questions that I’ve been bouncing around for some time:

What is �Catholic� fiction? Is it simply fiction written by a Catholic? Must it include Catholic characters and treat distinctly Catholic themes? Does it reflect a �Catholic sensibility,� being a product of the �sacramental imagination�? Ought the Catholic reader � or the general reader, for that matter � even bother with such questions?

These topics get chewed over a great deal in our circles, but all too often flit about in the realms of abstraction, unmoored by careful reference to any particular text. In that light, Matthew Lickona, Amy Welborn, Joseph O�Brien, and Bishop Daniel Flores decided to sit down with Exiles, the latest novel from Ron Hansen, to explore some of these questions.

I thought it sounded exciting. I’m a fan of Hopkins. And though I’ve never been able to work my way through “The Wreck of the Deutschland” I nevertheless have a certain affinity for the poem as it inspired another poem (I read in grad school) by Paul Durcan about the deaths of a group of Irish nuns in a Dublin fire. And, though I wasn’t able to buy and read the book before the club began, I did put it on my wish list and bought it in August with the gift certificate I got for my birthday. And it arrived last week and I devoured it in a couple of days.

I read the novel and thought it was good and didn’t know what to make of it exactly. That’s what I miss most about school—either being a student or a teacher—the opportunity for discussion. You get to the end of a book and close the cover and think, “Well, then…” and since there’s no one else around who has read the book who can discuss it with you, you’re rather stuck. You can talk at your husband; bore him or entertain him. But it mostly likely won’t get you very far. You can throw words at a screen and post it on your blog. But how do you attract others to the conversation?

But this is a new solution, the online book club. I was in a book club for a while. Actually it was a group of friends who tried to have a book club but wasn’t terribly successful. At least not about the book discussion part. We read a few books, not very memorable ones, and then met and had dinner or snacks. And the discussions never got very far or very deep. We were too busy discussing other things. Or there was no leadership. Or the chemistry wasn’t there. Or something.

Anyhow, this online book club is different. It combines the best of both worlds: it has the measured consideration of the written word, the carefulness of thought. And then it also has the give and take of conversation, the gestalt of the group mind that comes to conclusions that are somehow greater than the sum of the parts. The sudden flashes of insight and the standing on each other’s shoulders to reach a height none of the participants could have scaled on his own.

I really liked the structure of this discussion. One person,Matthew Lickona, started and then the next, Bishop Daniel Flores, responded and then the next (Amy Welborn), and finally Joseph O’Brien each building on what had been said before. And when each had his say, they went around a second and then a third time. And so the discussion spiraled outward and upward. The initial discussion was evidently complete before it was posted online. A second discussion took place as they were posted at Inside Catholic as readers chimed in. (The author, Ron Hansen, also chimes in. What fun!)

I started at much the same place as the book club participants: They confess disappointment. Amy said the book felt reportorial. I had thought that it often felt more like a biography than a work of fiction (I generally don’t like biographies). I felt like the bones of the research poked through, distracting, unsettling, uprooting the narrative and destroying the flow of the story, piercing the illusion of being in another place and time. But the great thing was that as the discussion flowed onward and upward it began to revise those first impressions, to dig into the reasons for the stylistic choices and to see more and more clearly.

I don’t have anything to add to the discussion. Not yet, maybe never. Perhaps just this once I’ll sit back and let everyone else do the talking. But I do urge you to read the book and then read all of the posts in the discussion. I was walking on air at the thrill of following along, watching the ideas develop. A different sort of thing than just reading an essay. It was like sitting at the back of the class in grad school. Even if I didn’t raise my hand and add my voice (a very rare thing that would be), I still could be carried on the waves with the group, a sort of heady whitewater rafting on ideas that leaves one gasping for air and wanting more.

I’m still reading, digesting, chewing. I’m only about halfway through the reader comments and there’s a whole other discussion that works itself out there. I think I need to go back and re-read the book and then come back again. 

The book club discussion starts here.

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