Book clubs

Writers are readers, right? So it stands to reason that we are or have been book club members. But many of us are lonely bastards, so perhaps I assume too much. Or perhaps when people hear “book club” they think of women reading Oprah-endorsed books and drinking Pinot Grigio. I am a member of two active book clubs (well, one is technically a media club as we do not limit ourselves to books), and I’ve been a member of at least six different book or media clubs over the years, although only two have persisted.

When I look at how book clubs began for me, I think about the first one I joined about eighteen years ago. It eventually grew too large and devolved into a group of women who spent more time eating and drinking than they did discussing any books, and after a while the books themselves all had a certain theme that was heavily influenced by a recovery or funny but light “chic lit.” We read Bridget Jones Diary, Jane Austen (I was always pulling for reading the classics), Wally Lamb, and we ate tiramisu, brie, and chicken salad. I think we dissolved about the time someone suggested we read some Stephen King just to mix it up. Still, the core group was lovely, and five of us went to New York City for one member’s thirtieth birthday and we all got matching tattoos. Seriously, we did, in Greenwich Village from an artist named Pinkie. I reveled in that initial intense sense of bonding (I used to have trouble dealing with women in groups); now that sensation reminds me of the feeling I enjoyed during MFA residencies.

The second book club was mixed with men and women, some of whom were married or dating, some single. We read the Maughm’s The Razor’s Edge (one of my all time favorites) and The Question of God:  C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. That group dissolved when someone suggested we read the Koran for perspective. That club lasted less than a year, and I think of that groups in terms of gorilla troop dynamics where one or more of the men (and occasionally women) took the opportunity to beat his chest and strut for the benefit of both sexes (in hopes of intimidating one, attracting the other). Good intentions, that club, but doomed from the start. The next mixed-gender media club suffered a similar fate, albeit for slightly different reasons that seemed to be based in the predilection of some members to invite confrontation and the predilection of others to avoid it all costs.

Respect for differing opinions and an ability to listen and stay relatively on topic is essential for the longevity of any successful club.

My last book club that fell apart consisted of women from my current neighborhood, included a woman from my first club (we all seem to run in overlapping circles), and was called the No Boys or Kids Allowed Book Club. All of the women had two to five children, many of them still in diapers (the children, not yet the women), so our monthly gatherings offered a welcome respite from daily household pressures for many of the participants. In that particular club, we discussed the writer and the writing style as much as the book itself, and of course that was appealing as well as alarming to me as a writer. But lives got busy, not everyone liked to read, and then a year had passed and the short-lived No Boys or Kids Allowed Book Club slipped away.

Of my two active clubs, one is a mixed-gender media club, and it is a small and rather exclusive group. We have watched movies, read articles, read books (leaning more toward non-fiction), and watched You Tube videos. I love this one because I really do experience perspectives I would not choose independently, such as Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism, books on neuropsychology, articles on the food industry and the FDA, essays on behavior or the nature of intelligence.

There are no couples in the mixed-gender group, and none of the participants are in a position to date any of the other participants (this is also true of the all female group). I mention this because it seems relevant. Discussions can reveal so much about the participants — values, core beliefs, certain preferences, struggles in our daily lives — that I think sometimes discussions can be thwarted if there is an existing relationship or even anticipation of a relationship among participants. For example, I know that sometimes I want to reframe my husband’s sentences or tell him whose feelings he may be hurting or get a little angry that his opinion is so contrary to my own. In other instances, I have watched other partners or potential partners agree without thinking or simply withdraw rather than endanger the partnership.

This concern over the place of coupledom in media clubs is my own concern, and I am curious to hear of successful long-term clubs that include spouses or groups of singles.

The other one of my clubs that is still active is one that began 10 years or so ago with a group of women who lived in my neighborhood at the time. The Hilltop Book Club is still thriving even if we don’t exactly meet every month, and I have the honor of hosting our annual Holiday Party where spouses are invited but no books are read. Early on we determined the need to establish ground rules in order for the club to survive. These rules included the requirement to read (most of) the book and the reminder that it was not appropriate to invite random people you meet at the grocery store to the next meeting. At one point we considered enforcing Fight Club rules (you do not talk about Book Club), but that proved to be unnecessary. We read all sorts of books, mostly fiction. 

As a reader, I love:  coming together with a clearly defined topic (the book) so “small talk” expectations are minimized, drinking wine (or añejo) and eating homemade snacks, the company of people who, at least for evening, want to share in a common experience, and experiencing books or other media I might not have experienced otherwise. I hate:  “wasting time” on books or media that I don’t find compelling, politely listening to individuals who interpret character’s actions with moralistic or overly personal pronouncements, and lack of facilitation or focus in the discussion.

From a writer’s perspective, I enjoy hearing how different people react to stories and characters. It’s like a lawyer listening to a jury debate a case – you get an unfiltered insider’s view whether you agree with it or not. I like the possibility that a beautiful new or a long overlooked book can catch fire because book clubs pick it up and pass it around. I am annoyed by books that even have a hint of being written expressly for the so-called traditional book club audience, almost as if “book club” were some sort of sub-genre of “chic lit,” although I accept movies that are created for a similar audience, like Bad Moms and Bridesmaids or perhaps the new Ghostbusters. What can I say? I’m allowed to be contradictory. 

I will always love book clubs, especially when they bring me together with people I grow to know more completely. And I hope someday someone will pick up something I wrote and say, “How about this for our next book club?”

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