Allison Hanes: Are book clubs an antidote to troubled times?

It started out as a way to keep busy and stay in touch with neighbours during the pandemic, but this book club has become so much more.

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Jonathan Goodman has a knack for picking titles for the book club he started that end up looking prescient in hindsight.

Over the summer, the group he formed with his Westmount neighbours read India is Broken by Ashoka Mody. Their discussion, over takeout samosas and Indian whisky, occurred in early September, mere weeks before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvement in the assassination of a Sikh leader on Canadian soil, a bombshell that sent diplomatic relations into a tailspin.

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The following selection was The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand, Weil and the Power of Philosophy in Dark Times, an examination of four trailblazing women thinkers who came to prominence during the turbulent period leading up to the Second World War. By the time the book club next gathered in October, Hamas had slaughtered 1,200 Israelis, Israel was dropping bombs on Gaza, and hate had surged in Montreal and around the world.

The group also recently read Leadership by controversial former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who died last month at age 100.

“In life it’s better to be lucky than smart. I chose the India book because we had just read about the British Empire, Russia, the Ottomans, and Genghis Khan and thought we were missing the history of a billion people,” said Goodman, the founder and chair of Montreal pharmaceutical company Knight Therapeutics and a devoted community builder. “I chose The Visionaries because two of the four female philosophers covered in the book are Jewish and they lived in Berlin in 1930s when (Stephen) Jarislowsky’s family was still there. I also chose it because I expanded the book club group to include two women.”

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Jarislowsky, the Montreal financier and philanthropist, was born in Germany in 1925, moved to the United States, served in the army and worked as a counter-intelligence officer in Japan after the Second World War before coming to Canada to found investment firm Jarislowsky Fraser. He also happens to be Goodman’s next-door neighbour and was a catalyst for the book club in the first place. He celebrated his 98th birthday the day the club met to parse the book on India.

“During COVID, Jarislowsky and I would talk. And it was kind of like (the TV sitcom) Home Improvement. He’d talk on his side of the fence and I’d talk on mine,” Goodman recalled. “And he was telling me that he had to go because he had a book club meeting with David Johnston, the former Governor General. And so I said ‘Can I join?’ and he said ‘No.’ No reservation, no hesitation, just no. But he said ‘I’ll have a book club with you.’”

So Goodman pulled in a few more nearby neighbours, like Steven Cummings, a businessman who was founding chair of the Montreal Holocaust Museum board, and David Cape, the president of Montreal cosmetics firm Groupe Marcelle. Tim Dunn, director of Landau Fine Art, and Goodman’s father-in-law, Mark Caplan, round out the group.

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Goodman is in charge of choosing the books, and combs reviews for inspiration.

“It’s a dictatorship,” he joked.

“It’s a benevolent dictatorship,” Jarislowsky clarified.

“And it comes with food,” Cummings added.

“We also have the notwithstanding clause if we don’t want to read the book,” said Dunn. “Well with Stephen, when he looks at the size of the print, he decides if he wants to read it.”

But as Cape said, reading something he normally wouldn’t is the whole point.

“Jonathan is coming up with books that at first glance I wouldn’t necessarily read, that are the polar opposite of my world view, but it’s giving us a chance and challenging us to read about different viewpoints and to think about them, which is great,” said Cape. “A lot of people nowadays read only what appeals to them.”

“Or hang out with people who are just like them, so it kind of avoids that feedback loop,” Dunn interjected. “And I think the wide range of topics we discuss allows us to be more fully informed of the nature of certain things that are happening today

Reading something together also brings a different level of focus when you know it will be a shared experience.

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“It’s just reinforces the joy of reading, the joy of learning and expanding your knowledge base, but also be able to understand other perspectives around the table,” said Cummings. “Because, you know, we can all read the same thing and come out of it with slightly different views of what we just read. We’re not talking about facts. Facts are facts. We’re talking about the perspective that those facts create in you. So we’ve had very lively discussions and I think that we’re enriched by that.”

The book club members try not to take themselves too seriously. Ribbing and joking prevents the meetings from getting dull. Goodman likens the atmosphere to poker night with buddies.

“It is a scheduled excuse to kibitz with buddies and, in my case, pretend to be intellectual,” he said. “Unlike poker, we all leave a winner,” he jokes.

But true to its origins during the upheaval of the pandemic, the book club delves into some of the world’s most intractable problems. The material they read is weighty, including The Avoidable War by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, about the potential dangers of a U.S.-China conflict, and Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker’s tome on humanism.

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Goodman often goes the extra mile to foster conversation.

When they read The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, about discovery of the only copy of a poem written in 50 B.C. by Lucretius that claimed that there is no afterlife, Goodman invited Rabbi Lisa Gruschow from Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom and a Rhodes Scholar, to participate. And when they read People Love Dead Jews, about the fascination with Jewish suffering in history and lack of respect for Jewish lives, he brought in the author Dara Horn, then asked her to address the congregation of Shaar Hashomayim synagogue.

“Occasionally, I choose a book with a Jewish theme in hopes of poking the Jarislowsky secularist bear, who is adamant that he doesn’t believe in religion,” Goodman said.

Although they like to tease Jarislowsky, comparing him to Moses because of his age, the other members treat him with a certain deference in light of his remarkable life experience.

“History is just not taught anymore and if you don’t teach history … you’re condemned to repeat what history could have taught you and you could have avoided being stupid,” said Jarislowsky. “And one of the results is the kind of idiocy that 74 million people don’t know a lie from the truth.”

If book clubs are an antidote to troubled times, Goodman wants to inspire others to read, gather, share and exchange.

“It’s so important that people read,” he said. “The less we read, the less tolerant we are of competitive ideas.”

Up next is The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odessey of Angela Merkel.

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