Some thoughts on reading groups — on the publication of The Double Bind in paperback

Not long after The Double Bind was published in hardcover last year, I had dinner with a book group that had just read the novel. I was there in part because their invitation was gracious and funny. . .and in part because they promised me a spectacular potluck antipasto bar if I joined them. Also, they said the wine would be really good.
So I went.
Not long into an extremely animated conversation about the novel, one of the readers asked me what I thought The Double Bind was really about. I answered sincerely – but not especially creatively – that I thought it was a thriller about a young social worker, an elderly photographer, and the mystery of the photos he leaves behind when he dies. I said I viewed it as more of a page-turner than my earlier work.
This reader shook her head. “No,” she said adamantly, “that’s not it at all. It’s really a story about stories – it’s a novel about novels.”
Immediately the other readers jumped in, expanding eloquently upon this notion:
• “You wove The Great Gatsby into the story because The Double Bind is about reinvention.”
• “Your book is about the lies we tell ourselves – all of us, not just the homeless or the mentally ill – so we can put one foot in front of the other day after day.”
• “It’s a thriller, but it’s a thriller that makes us question all those personal parts of our lives that we bring to a book – all books, fiction as well as non-fiction.”
I loved these responses, and even if the antipasto bar or the wine hadn’t been spectacular (oh, but they were), this exchange would have made my visit to the book group worthwhile. I had learned something important both about this one novel and about how my work is read – and why.
The truth is, a lot of what novelists do is mere muscle memory. Rarely are we consciously deconstructing what we write as we work. Moreover, when it isn’t muscle memory, it’s frequently unplanned. Often I am depending upon my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. Why? Because chances are, I haven’t the slightest idea where it’s going myself.
This is one of the reasons why I cherish reading groups – why I have such enormous respect for all of you. It’s not simply that you are the medieval monks of the digital age, keeping literary fiction vibrant and vital and alive into the twenty-first century. It’s that you help me understand my own work a little better.
The Double Bind is a departure for me in ways that I understood when I was writing it and in ways that I have only come to understand since it was published. The novel includes actual photos left behind a talented, once-homeless photographer. (Look for Judy Collins and Flip Wilson and a little girl with her parents who will win an Academy Award decades after the photo was taken.) It has characters you know well – or thought you knew well – and characters you will meet for the first time. It has a mystery at its core.
But it is also a book about how we read – and why. And this is something I have learned from reading groups.
So I thank you. Thank you for your faith in my work – and for championing, even now, what words and reading and books can mean to the soul.

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

3 thoughts on “Some thoughts on reading groups — on the publication of The Double Bind in paperback

  1. Andy says:

    This book was one of many that I have read from you that “keeps the thoughts going”. I think you can go on and with speculation and debate. I did try to relate to the discussion questions in the back of the hardcover and they were on going debates as well. I just love the irony and education in your books, it makes me want to keep reading from you, do not ever stop. Thanks

  2. Melanie says:

    Our book club is reading The Double Bind as our April selection. I’ve been waiting the long year since I first read it to finally talk about it. And I must thank you for the Gatsby references, which caused us to read it in preparation. We had one of our best discussions and I look forward to the April meeting with even more anticipation. Thanks.

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