Really, I’m not in a book club.
Posted on March 25th, 2014
James Atlas’s “Really, You’re Not in a Book Club?” op/ed made me laugh, not just because of his wide-eyed surprise to learn there are book clubs on Goodreads. You know, that new-fangled internet group thing that just sold for a lot of money so it has to mean something. (I’m paraphrasing, but only just.)
Or his realization there are even book clubs in fly-over states! Quelle horreur! (Sorry, paraphrasing again–but James Atlas ought to know better. Did this actually come as news to him, or is it a conceit, an “everyman” op/ed persona? Because everyman already knew about Goodreads.)
I enjoyed it because really, I’m not in a book club, not unless you count a handful of groups on Goodreads. (As Mr. Atlas suppresses a shudder–I hope he has “friends” there now, and will no longer need to use “quotes” around “friends” or “anything” else “associated” with the “internet.”) I read on a schedule for undergrad and law school and I am not very good at reading on a schedule unless there’s a grade at stake. I’m contrary like that.
I did try. I was in a book club with a dozen or so women, all of whom were college graduates (this was a necessity for belonging to the umbrella organization). I was the youngest and my mother was the next oldest member. I lasted a year, barely, and it did broaden my horizons some, because I never would have read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or American Pastoral on my own.(Verdicts: Ya-Yas were frothy fun; Roth was ridiculously obsessed with his penis and prostate.)
It should have been a good experience. I like reading books. I really like buying books. (And–sorry, authors–particularly second-hand: I cut my teeth, quite literally, being toted around in a backpack at Holmes.) I like buying books so well I am on a buying fast until I read twenty of the books on my TBR list. (I keep that list on “Goodreads.”) I like talking about books–grew up talking about books critically. So what’s not to love?
Well…there’s the problem. My default setting is critique. I can’t help it; I’m pretty sure I was born with a red pen in one hand, which could not have been comfortable for my mother.
So I am happy to rip a novel to shreds and dissect the pieces on the dining room table with a magnifying glass and tweezers while we all enjoy a glass of wine and a slice of cake. When I think of book clubs, I remember those sweet women in their 60s and 70s staring at me while I talked about plot holes and cliched dialog tags and overwrought metaphors and historical errors…and my very slow realization that I was breaking the rules. I was supposed to say, “Great book, but I really love this wine! Where did you find it?”
The reading experience — let’s admit it — is less pure in the mature atmosphere of Book Club World than it was in the intellectually heady days of college. Diversions from the matter at hand are inevitable. When you have 10 lively people in a room and a good meal on the table, it’s sometimes hard to remember why you’re there. “It’s all about the dinner,” says the novelist Sally Koslow, a member of a Manhattan group.
My own group is highly disciplined, and we talk about the work under discussion with admirable fervor, but we do like to eat. Our meetings remind me of a restaurant I pass on the Connecticut Turnpike that has a sign out front saying FOOD and BOOKS. The gossip-prone among us are kept in line by the presence of our kindly but firm moderator, Ilja Wachs, a professor of comparative literature at Sarah Lawrence whose enthusiasm for the classics is infectious.
From talking with girlfriends I have gathered that their book clubs are generally more about the food and the wine and company than the book.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
I think if I had the credentials to get a seat at the table, I might enjoy a book club moderated by a kindly but firm Sarah Lawrence professor. I’m not sure I could handle admirable fervor (or 35-word sentences, especially if I’m trying to eat at the same time). I might have to check out that place on the Connecticut Turnpike.
So really, truly: I’m not in a book club. (Book clubs around my city are now heaving a collective sigh of relief.) But whenever someone starts an age-of-sail naval history book club in my city? Watch out, because I’ll be one of the first members. Until then, I can wait–and I have plenty to read while I do.