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A Little Weird: The end is the beginning



By Eddie Whitlock

On a family vacation when I was about 10 years old, I bought a post card that wound up

on the wall of my bedroom until I moved away for college. It read “Once as I sat musing sad and lonely, a voice came to me from out of the gloom, saying, ‘Cheer up! Things could be worse!’

And so, I cheered up and – sure enough – things got worse!”

I was reminded of that early attachment to cynicism when I sat down to write this

column about our book group.

About eight years ago, while working at the public library, I asked my boss, Trudi Green,

if I could start a book discussion group. Trudi questioned whether I wanted to do this because it was a permanent thing, not something I could abandon after a few months.

I don’t know how she knew me so well, but she did. I tend to start projects that I don’t

finish. I have a chest of drawers that is supposed to become a bar cart, but I haven’t finished it.

There’s a sequel to my first novel that is in its third unacceptable incarnation. And there’s a

front door that according to the internet could be painting in about six hours. I think I’m now in

the sixth week of that project.

I assured Trudi that I would keep it going.

“After the End: A Post-Apocalyptic Book Discussion Group” was born.

I’ve always enjoyed reading post-apocalyptic stories. They’re rarely about the actual end

of the world. They’re usually about the feisty band of folks who are trying to cope with the

world-ending events that are going on. One of my favorites, Eternity Road by Jack McDevitt,

follows a feisty group who are on a quest for books. What better quest could there be?

Stephen King says people like horror because it’s a rehearsal for the only thing you can’t

rehearse: death. I’d say post-apocalyptic fiction is also popular as a rehearsal-for-the-

unrehearsable.

When the group was approved as an official Athens Clark County Library entity, I

selected I Am Legend by Richard Matheson as our first book.

You may recognize that title from the mediocre movie version done a few years back. I

hope you won’t judge the book by that flick. A better version done in the 1970s starred

Charlton Heston and was titled “The Omega Man.” The best version, though, was the 1964

Vincent Price classic “The Last Man on Earth.”

Oh, yeah, the post-apocalyptic genre has turned out quite a few movies, too.

Among the other books we read initially were Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, Stephen

King’s The Stand, and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.

The most challenging of that first batch was the Hoban book. It’s written primarily in a

future version of English that takes quite a bit of getting used to. Even on my third reading, I

struggled.

The Stand has been a favorite since I read it in college. King came to speak here at UGA,

and I actually got to ask him about it.

I think I was in junior high when I read the Vonnegut book. Cat’s Cradle – besides being

an excellent post-apocalyptic tale – is the book I always recommend to someone who has never read anything by Uncle Kurt.

The other book we read that first year was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I

thought it was important that we include new works as well as stuff not written by white men.

Station Eleven has since become a pretty popular book and was developed into an HBO series.

Although I picked the first few books, we shifted to having the group pick them after

that. We had initially not planned to meet in July because of summer vacation schedules.

Instead, that month’s meeting became our calendar-setting event when we would choose the

works to cover during the next club year. We also rotated the leading of discussions.

It took a couple of years for the group to coalesce. Initially, there were never more than

three people at a meeting. By our third year, we had built up to a steady five to eight attendees.

We also agreed to include one “alternate history” selection per group year.

Following the 2016 election, we briefly toyed with the idea of changing our genre from

“post-apocalyptic books” to “current events.” Cooler - less hilarious - heads prevailed.

For someone just hearing the term “post-apocalyptic fiction,” they might assume it’s a

rather somber topic. It’s not. At least, the discussions are not. We repeatedly had library staff

come and close the door to our meetings because “patrons are complaining about the loud

laughter.” What can I say? Sometimes the end of the world is amusing.

In 2019, I asked permission to stream one of our meetings. I thought we might be able

to involve folks who like the genre, but who don’t live in the Athens, Georgia, area. We did a

couple of streaming meetings.

There were two issues we had to grapple with there. One was the platform we used,

which limited who could participate. The other was our in-house sound equipment. Having the

group sitting around a table with a single microphone worked but not well.

I am so glad we did online meetings before it was our only option.

When Covid shut down so many activities, our book group never missed a meeting.

Valerie Bell, who is Athens Regional Library Director, helped us find a better platform. The

library’s information technology folks helped get audio equipment set up for our meetings.

I was surprised at how well we transitioned to virtual meetings.

Doing the meetings during Covid actually increased the number of people participating.

We picked up a few folks who are local, but who don’t like to drive at night. We picked up

people from other states who were happy to join an online book discussion group during the

time of social distancing.

In mid-2021, I retired from the library. My friend Gretchen Elm has taken over the

management of the group. She’s doing a great job.

The participants have changed over the years. We currently have more than a dozen

people at every meeting. We’ve re-read a few of the early selections since there’s a new

membership. Both Riddley Walker and I Am Legend were discussed again in 2019.

The group has let me re-read favorites, but it has also introduced me to some great

books and a diverse array of authors. I can highly recommend Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi,

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, and The Children's Bible by Lydia Millet.

One book we read in 2020 was Paul Tremblay’s Cabin at the End of the World. The story

was heart wrenching. When a film version was released recently (titled “Knock at the Cabin,”) I

was pleased to see that many – though not all – of the book’s twists were included.

At our upcoming July meeting, we will be setting the calendar for the coming group

year. I’m looking forward to it.

Bad things are going to happen. At some point, an event to end life as we know it will

come. On the bright side, though, there will be a feisty little band of survivors who are going to have quite an adventure trying to deal with it.

At least, that’s what I’ve read.

Oh. If you would like to join After The End, email Gretchen at gelm@athenslibrary.org.

Eddie Whitlock is a Georgia native, a graduate of UGA, and a wannabe writer. He retired in 2021 from the Athens-Clarke County Library, where he worked as coordinator of volunteers, community service supervisor, and vending machine scapegoat.


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