At Book Browse.com, there is an online forum that’s set up for people who want to talk about the problems in their book clubs. Most of the gripes posted are about the difficult personalities who spoil the fun at book club meetings: the member who regularly shows up drunk, the one who is bossy and controlling, the one who won’t shut up, the one who steers every discussion to the topic of her own sex life.
It occurred to me as I scrolled through these plaints that the next phenomenon might be group therapy for book groups. It also occurred to me that my own book club lacks even a single one of these colorful troublemakers. Probably, by default, this makes me our group’s difficult personality. I’m afraid that I am the dubious one, the recalcitrant one, the mope. I’m the one who disdains much of the assigned reading and the one who balks at using those Discussion Questions or Reading Group Guides so helpfully provided by the publishers at the back of some books. Certainly I am the one who has begun seizing upon the flimsiest of excuses (e.g., thunderstorm warnings) to avoid going to the meetings.
There is a definite pattern in my family of not being successful at clubs, beginning with my mother, who managed to get ousted from her Brownie troop in Montclair, New Jersey, at age eight for roller-skating through the room during a meeting. But a book club seemed like such a safe bet. In many ways, it’s difficult to avoid being a member of a book club these days, especially if you’re female. Almost all of my women friends belong to one, and some to more than one. Nobody can say for sure just how many of these groups there are across the country, but the estimated number has quadrupled, from 250,000 ten years ago, to a million or more today. If, by some miracle, you have managed to miss this bandwagon, there are now all kinds of self-styled experts who are ready to help you hop aboard.
You can buy a variety of how-to books that will instruct you on the fine points of setting up your own club. Other books provide lists of what your group ought to read—or, at least, what everybody else is reading. You can hire book group consultants, such as an outfit called Good Books Lately, which offers its services anywhere in the nation, promising, for a fee, to “enhance and energize” your reading and discussion. If your group has no natural leaders, you can turn to the Association of Professional Book Club Facilitators, which boasts more than a thousand members. Finally, you can learn from BookBrowse.com how to break the ice at your first club meeting by organizing everybody to play games called Pass the Hat, Pair Share, and Human Twister.
Evidently, the twelve women who gathered in the Quincy, Illinois, home of Sarah Atwater Denman to start a literary society on November 16, 1866, were able to manage without any professional facilitating or human twisting. This was a group that got right down to business. The first book they chose to read was The History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism in Europe, a two-volume tome by the Irish historian W. E. H. Lecky. Among other topics, this book led them through the study and discussion of Greek idolatry, the art of Persia, Galileo, Paracelsus, Spinoza, Descartes, Martin Luther, the French Revolution, Suarez’s De Fide, slavery, the industrial system, and mercantile theory.
Next, the women devoted twenty-nine weeks to reading aloud and pondering Lydia Maria Child’s Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive Ages. After that, according to the club’s records, “the pages of Plato were laid open and were not again closed for two successive winters.” This group called itself Friends in Council; it was among the earliest of the women’s clubs—reading circles, civic clubs, art leagues, and, eventually, suffragette groups—that began to crop up in cities and towns all over America after the Civil War. Because women in this era rarely had the chance to go on to higher education, they banded together to form these clubs, serious organizations with agendas of “social good” and “mental stimulation.”
The Friends in Council’s early ideals were so pure and hopeful and steeped in longing that they could almost break your heart. Its members spoke in terms of illumination, generosity, and a widening of the spirit that would be reached through intellectual growth. They pledged to meet every Tuesday, to read and to talk about such subjects as Hegel, Goethe, Charlemagne, chivalry, and the education of women. They would aim “in the direction of whatever is noble, beautiful, just, and true.”
If you thumb through any of the contemporary how-to guides for book groups, you’ll notice that most of them invoke those nineteenth-century women’s literary societies as direct ancestors of today’s new book clubs. But I wonder if Sarah Atwater Denman and her Friends in Council would recognize as their progeny groups with names like The Book Babes, The Book Bimbos, and The Hardback Hussies. What would they make of The Happy Bookers of Linn, Missouri, who in an online interview give their motto as “You Never Know What You’ll Will Find Between the Covers”? Or of the book club in Winona, Minnesota, whose members wore witch hats and capes on the night they were discussing Harry Potter and, on another occasion, went together to see the movie Bridget Jones’s Diary all dressed in their pajamas? I think it’s fair to say that the lineage is less than direct. For one thing, it’s pretty clear that the actual descendants of the Friends in Council are, well, the Friends in Council. This group, which can claim to be the oldest continuous literary society in the nation, still meets on Tuesdays in Quincy, Illinois, and, remarkably, seems to retain its sweet, solemn sense of purpose. Many of its members are daughters and granddaughters of earlier members. They may no longer devote two winters to reading Plato, but they spend a year studying a single topic—ethical dilemmas, Nobel Peace Prize winners, immigration, banned books. Each member is assigned to write a lengthy research paper on some aspect of the topic and present it at a meeting. After producing twenty-five of these scholarly reports, she can retire from paper-writing and become an associate member. “Associate member?” a friend of mine said, when I told her about this. “After twenty-five papers, I’d demand a Ph.D.”
There are thousands of other longtime reading groups around the country—many of them affiliated with libraries or churches—that have met without fanfare over the years and also stem from those nineteenth-century roots. But the new slew of book clubs comes from a discrete family tree. To chart that, you don’t have to go back very far—only as far as Oprah. Winfrey’s audience is vast and worshipful, and it’s not hard to see why—she manages to be all heart and brains and clout at the same time. More important, she’s always had a preternatural understanding of what American women want next: Dr. Phil, an Enell Serious Support bra, a brand-new Pontiac G6. Who knew? Oprah knew.
When she launched her televised book club, in 1996, one other thing Oprah knew was that most women no longer cared about getting a higher education from a club. They didn’t need to—women outnumber men in American universities these days. They demand real Ph.D.’s. What Oprah offered, with the titles she selected and the tone she set, was not self-improvement, but solace. This would be a club wounded, and the overworked. It would be a balm for busy lives. It was, of course, an instant hit. Oprah’s idea not only put every single book she picked on the best-seller list but also touched off the epidemic of new book groups that began to meet monthly in living rooms and coffee shops around the country.
The bonding part has clearly worked. In interviews filed on ReadingGroupGuides.com, you’ll find enthusiastic accounts of book clubs whose members travel to the beach together, plan spa weekends, gamble in Las Vegas, bolster one another through messy divorces and regimens of chemotherapy, babysit for one another’s kids, exchange confidences, share in-jokes, and play pranks. It can be almost too easy to mock the things women will do—wear pajamas and tiaras, for instance— under the guise of a book club, but there’s an insistent and poignant theme to the interviews, too. In these clubs, the women say again and again that they’ve found a place to “let go” and “kick back” and “come out of their shells.” They’ve found a place where they can drink some wine and wave magic wands and, if they want to, brand themselves babes or divas or hussies for a while. They’ve found a place, finally, to just get together and have some fun.
An odd truth about women, though, is that many of us are not so good at sustaining fun once we’ve found it. We just can’t keep it simple. We up the ante until we’re exhausted again. A friend of mine called recently to tell me that she’d shopped, cleaned, cooked, and then set and reset the table twice in preparation for hosting her book club—and still she was worried that things wouldn’t measure up to the level of entertaining they’ve come to expect. BookBrowse, in its column of troubleshooting tips, warns of the tendency to turn meetings into “gourmet extravaganzas,” with each member trying to outdo the others until it all “gets out of hand.” There are clubs where members have routinely come to count on party favors, elaborate decorations, and food that relates to the theme of the reading. One New Jersey group is particularly unabashed about this. The name of of their book club is “Mostly We Eat.” They maintain an up-to-date Web site that lists their own favorite food/book pairings, such as “The Human Stain, food theme: foods that leave a stain”; “Mrs. Dalloway, food theme: a stream of appetizers”; or, “A Lesson Before Dying, food theme: Cajun and Southern.” Scrolling through this extensive list can make you see your own bookshelves in a new light. Beowulf, food theme: smorgasbord! A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, food theme: worms and more!
Because of all her visible success, it’s often claimed that Oprah Winfrey “got women reading.” I don’t think so. I give her credit for many things, but it seems logical to me that most of the women who flocked to join her book club were already readers. Non-gardeners, after all, don’t tend to sign up for a garden club—nor do they rush out by the millions to buy a trowel just because a celebrity holds one up on television. What Oprah did was organize women as a reading force. She legitimized their taste by choosing the same kinds of books that many of them were already buying and reading. She showed them how they could find time to bond with other overscheduled women simply by reading the same book at the same time—or even a little bit of the book. In her list of tips on hosting a book group, Oprah is a forgiving taskmaster. Try, she advises, to make sure “everyone has read at least one chapter.”
The recently published Book Club Cookbook takes this idea a step further, offering actual recipes solicited from book groups around the nation. It suggests, for example, eggplant caponata to accompany a discussion of Bel Canto and lemony goat cheese tart as the right dish to go with Galileo’s Daughter. Or perhaps you’d like a little homemade Irish soda bread along with your Angela’s Ashes. “[M]y book club ate jam sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs just like the picnicking couple in Margaret Atwood’s riveting Blind Assassin,” reports critic Sacha Zimmerman in The New Republic. “Thank goodness we didn’t read Hannibal.” And thank goodness, too, that Sarah Atwater Denman never had to whip up two years’ worth of souvlakis and moussakas to go with all that Plato. The Friends in Council, according to current member Laura Gerdes Ehrhart, have never bothered with refreshments at their regular Tuesday meetings.
When you pare away food and funny hats, the book is still the core of any book group. There is plenty of reading going on in these clubs and plenty of passion about that reading. Publishers have taken note. Overall trade-book sales in this country have not risen much in years, but when book groups latch on to a particular title or author that they love, they tend to pass the word to other groups, and the result can be a nice big boost for certain books. These days, almost all of the major publishing houses are courting book clubs through their Web sites. They offer enticements in the form of newsletters, reading guides, downloadable excerpts of new books, snippets from authors’ diaries, bookmarks, and, of course, recipes. They’ve set up contests for book groups to win advance copies of new novels and even the chance to have an “author chat”—a phone call to your club from a real, live writer (whose latest book you will, naturally, all have just read).
It has become doubly important for publishers to get their authors known to smaller book groups because they’ve already missed their shot at the big time with Oprah. She deals only in dead writers now. After critics sniffed at her book choices for dwelling too much on themes of trauma, hardship, and loss, Winfrey closed down her club completely for a while and then reincarnated it in an all-classics mode. Her loyal television audience has gamely stayed with her, putting titles like Anna Karenina, East of Eden, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter onto the best-seller list (and, presumably, reading at least one chapter). These books may be the stuff of a college syllabus, but Oprah’s critics aren’t appeased—now they point out that the classics she has chosen deal preponderantly with trauma, hardship, and loss. This is probably the time to remind ourselves that, ever since the Bible started the trend, almost all books have relied, in some measure, on trauma, hardship, and loss.
It took me a while to understand what was bothering me about being in a book club. When my mother skated her way out of Brownies, she knew what she was doing. She wanted no more of whittling soap or peddling cookies or singing the song about the Brownie smile. But I didn’t have such clear complaints. There are many things to like about my book group. We have no name. We’re only sporadically organized. Setting up a meeting always involves several rounds of e-mails and more than one rescheduling. This suits me. There are seven of us—writers, teachers, a lawyer. We agree on important things: politics (progressive), pets (dogs), war (against), and wine (for). We compare notes on our children, our doctors, our hair colorists. We have never traveled anywhere together, but we could. I cannot picture us around a blackjack table at Caesar’s Palace, but a beach weekend would not be out of the question. Nobody has suggested that we attempt book-based meals, but, if it happened, I would give it a try. If only to banish the thought of “food theme: Cajun,” I would serve okra and rice, a pork chop, cornbread, some ice cream in a cup, and a Moon Pie— the plain, transcendent last meal that Ernest Gaines’s Jefferson asks for in A Lesson Before Dying. Really, I would do a lot of things with this group, but I do not want to sit around with them and talk about books.
When I finally figured out why, it was mostly thanks to Laura Bush. “Books are not just for reading—they are for sharing, and talking about,” the First Lady told an audience at one of her national book festivals. “Finishing a book is like saying good-bye to an old friend; we need support groups for that. That’s why book clubs were invented.”
And that is the big problem. For me, books and support groups do not really mix. When we make them mix, it is the book that loses. Right away, we turn it into something it wasn’t: an assignment, a lesson, a chore. We use it as a menu maker and a party favor. Worst of all, we’ll put it into the hands of a consultant or a facilitator who will almost make us believe there is some special trick to all this, something more than what we’ve always known by heart: find a book; open it; read.
In groups, we kill books with kindness and confabulation. We discuss them to death. I’m tired of all this talking and sharing—and where does it even take us? In your luckiest moments of reading, it seems to me, what you find is something to keep quiet about. You find something to hoard. You come upon one of those inexplicable places in a book that touches you so deeply you don’t even have the words to say why. And you should not have to. These places belong to you. Others can just go find their own.
If only a book group would never assign or talk about books. Then I could stay. But that, of course, won’t happen. A book is the badge of any book group—everyone knows that. Without it you are only a group of women in a living room, talking about fabrics or face cream or the mysteries of the universe and, God forbid, having fun.
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