Intellectual conversation lures young adults
Like many young adults who attend college out of town, earn a degree and then return home, Mary Watson, 28, had to adjust to life at home being different. No longer were all of her friends around to discuss their thoughts on everything under the sun.
She and friend Kate Wyman, with whom she earned a degree in English at the University of Dallas, reconnected in New Orleans in 2013. The two avid readers lamented missing the intellectual discussions about literature they had in college, and decided, in 2014, to start the Young Adult Book Club.
It’s been going strong all year with an average of about 12-14 attendees, ranging from college age to 40.
“The purpose of the book club is not to read ‘War and Peace’,” Watson said. “It’s the discussion that’s most important. It gives people a place where they can come and discuss the big things – What is beauty? What is truth? What is goodness? That kind of thing.”
Every month, the group usually reads two selections – usually a short story with a religious or moral theme and an essay.
While the authors have varied, Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, whom Watson calls the quintessential short story writer, has been the most frequent. O’Connor’s “The Crop,” “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” “The River,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The Enduring Chill” have been tackled.
“It’s hard to resist the urge to turn back to her (O’Connor) every few months because she’s always a winner,” Watson, group leader, said. “Every O’Connor story I’ve have ever read has deepened for me both temporal and eternal mysteries.”
Stories by other authors have included: Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs”; Russell Kirk’s “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding”; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter”; Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast”; J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Leaf by Niggie” and Graham Greene’s “The Hint of an Explanation.”
Stick to short stories
Watson thinks the key to the success of the club is they don’t read books; young adults are too busy to do that. Short stories and essays are the best bets.
“It was so successful and it worked so well. We figured if we did books, it would be difficult to discuss in 1 ½ hours,” Watson, a parishioner of St. Patrick, said. “Over these months, we have shared texts in common and can refer back to them.
She and Wyman selected the first few months of stories, but take suggestions as well. The Catholic Church calendar is also considered when selecting a story. For example, in February during Lent, they chose “Babette’s Feast” about feasting and fasting.
She’s also had help from member Jeremy Reuther, a Jesuit High religion teacher.
“We could not have done all this without him,” Watson said. “He is a teacher and can really help steer the conversations,” which he did in October.
After each meeting, those who attend do quick evaluations that Watson, now doing most of the picking, said is helpful.
At the October meeting, O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People” was discussed as was a letter she wrote a friend about the book and her thoughts on writing short stories called “Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.” O’Connor wrote “Good Country People” in four days, Watson said. It is a story about a “joyless 30-something woman, a ‘maimed soul,’ who lost a leg in a hunting accident at age 10,” and it gets stolen by a Bible salesman.
Watson began by giving and getting thoughts on O’Connor’s take of what a short story is.
“A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded,” Watson read from O’Connor. “It’s a story about personalities that get reduced to cliches,” added one student.
The group, comprised mostly of Catholic young adults from college age to 40, have varied careers – a lawyer, English majors, a bookstore manager, paralegals, a behavioral therapist, a teacher, a seminarian – and held a lively discussion.
“The thought behind the club was to give others the same experience we had at the University of Dallas,” Watson added, where she experienced a large Catholic community that attended Mass and socialized by reading books and having intelligent discussions.
When she attended George Mason University School of Law in Virginia earning her law degree, the atmosphere was decidedly different. For the first time in her life, she was not among people who were mostly Catholic or believed in a universal truth. She yearned to again find a group of faithful, like-minded people.
After joining the Young Adult Ministry through the Archdiocese of New Orleans with Wyman, and then being a member of its Young Adult Council, Watson found again she could talk more openly about her faith with others. The book club grew out of the CYO/Young Adult Ministry experience.
“My understanding of what it meant to be a strong Catholic also changed a bit because it became readily apparent that going to Mass everyday and living the faith without shame was not extreme, and that there are scores of normal people who enjoy beer as much as I do and love to have a good time but also go to daily Mass and really strive to live the church’s teachings on faith and morals,” Watson said.
The rundown of each monthly meeting generally involves socializing, after which Watson will open discussions once a passage from the story is read.
“It’s a joy to talk about literature,” she said. “It’s so fun. When do you have the opportunity to do that? Most of the time, you can’t have those conversations at work; just to talk about things of substance, instead of talking about “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
When the group started, Watson wondered if The Columns’ jazz music was drawing young adults in, but discovered that people really like the conversion.
“The discussion is free-wheeling, and, sometimes, we don’t even get to the article,” said Elizabeth Desimone, 28, an avid reader, Ursuline Academy graduate with a master’s in creative writing and now a parishioner at St. Joan of Arc Church in LaPlace. She joined about seven months ago. “I leave the meetings feeling really invigorated. ... It is nice to come back and find a group of smart people who love literature and talk about it.”
“I joined as an excuse to read more and thought it would be a good way go surround myself with people that have the same mindset as me,” new member Emily Dardis, 26, from Metairie, said.
Watson truly believes the club is meeting a need that exists in the young adult community in New Orleans. The benefits for those involved are numerous. Watson hopes similar reading clubs will grow from this Uptown group so other like-minded young adults can meet and become friends..
“It’s been really cool to know that I am not the only person that thinks the things I do or believes the things I do,” Watson said. “Just having a community like this is wonderful.”
Desimone invites others to join them.
“If you like read and want a lively discussion on short stories, come,” she said. “The people who come are fun to talk to.”