More Than A Book Club: The Signature of All Things

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By Chandra Allen

On the second Monday in November, 14 women gathered for More Than A Book Club at Scarritt Bennett Center.  We were discussing The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.  The Signature of All Things  is a novel about the search for meaning, love, and the answers to critical life questions that many of us also seek answers to.

Alma Whitaker, the main character, is expertly created as a dynamic and complex woman of the 19th century.  Alma does much to give insight to the culture and the norms for women in the Age of Enlightenment while being an unaware informer.  The backdrop of wealth, privilege, and education forms and guides her life. I found myself loving her, disliking her, sympathizing with her, and encouraging her at different points during the novel.  Alma struggles with many of the things many of us may struggle with – in her own way she is seeking to balance the personal and professional aspects of her life – the private self and public self.  She is also seeking answers to the existential questions that come up for her.  Gilbert takes the reader on an incredible journey as Alma tries her best to answer these questions through the lens of science.

While I don’t want to give too much away, in case you are planning to read it (and I recommend you do), I find myself still pondering some of the insights raised in the book club discussion. One of the powerful passages raised in our discussion refers to moss: “In every way mosses could seem plain, dull, modest, and even primitive. The simplest weed sprouting from the humblest city sidewalk appeared infinitely more sophisticated by comparison.  But here is what few people understood, and what Alma came to learn: Moss is inconceivably strong…Moss grows where nothing else can grow…Moss, Alma learned, is the first sign of botanic life to reappear on land that has been burned or otherwise stripped down to barrenness. ..It is a resurrection engine…The only thing moss needs is time.” (The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Chapter Three, The Disturbance of Messages, p. 169).


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This is an example of how skilled Gilbert is at her craft – beautiful descriptions that draw the reader in. She highlights that what might seem insignificant in our lives, often has incredible power and meaning.  It can be a reminder to slowing down and tuning in to the beauty and meaning all around us.  Because it is there in the seams of the sidewalks, on the sides of buildings- a whole world taking place that we may never notice if we don’t stop to look. We could each take this passage and go several different directions and that is the beauty of engaging with a book and its characters, and this is exactly what happened in our book club discussion.  For some, Alma’s pursuit of studying moss made her more likable as a character and for others this seemed to distance them even more from identifying with her.  For some, this was perceived as the beginning of an incredible journey of discovery and for others it was interpreted as a way to avoid dealing with the real issues in her life.  As we discuss the books in More Than A Book Club, we don’t always agree, but that is where we find the richness of discussion.

Hearing the discussion in our group on Monday, helped me see the text and the characters in a new way.  This is what good discussion does – it helps open our eyes to new ways of seeing the world.  We each bring our own stories, experiences, and preferences to the table when we discuss the book each month.  I encourage you to join the conversation.

Join us on Monday, December 8, 2014 when we will discuss Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple.  We will also have a Book Swap (bring a wrapped new or used book to participate).  More Than A Book Club meets from 7pm-8:15pm on the 2nd Floor of Fondren Hall.  Please contact Chandra Allen ([email protected]) to find out more.

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Chandra Allen is a native Nashvillian.  She earned a Bachelor’s degree in German from Davidson College in North Carolina and a Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School.  She is currently an Assistant Director of Education, Programs, and Connections at Scarritt-Bennett Center where she plans programs focused on women’s leadership and women’s empowerment.  Chandra is passionate about creating an authentic environment where women and men gather to explore and awaken the strength of their voices, experiences, and creativity to effect positive change in their communities and for themselves.