One of the worst pejoratives that anyone in our book group can hurl at the monthly selection is to compare it to “Children of the Arbat,” a profile of Stalin and Russia in the early 1930s. Although I enjoyed the book, many group members considered the 1988 historical novel to be ponderous. At every book group meeting, one of our members must listen to the criticism (or praise) of the book he has selected. That’s how the group works. And I love it.
Book groups–or clubs–are so popular, so commonplace now it prompted this headline in a recent issue of The New York Times: “Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?” The article’s author, James Atlas, says when he meets a friend on the street he says, “‘What’s your book group reading…’ Not: ‘Are you in a book group?’”
Atlas says that five million Americans belong to book groups, but I suspect that’s an understatement. Katie Wu writing in McSweeneys.net says there could be more than 100,000 book clubs in the United States. One of the largest, according to Wu, is Pulpwood Queens, which has 350 chapters throughout the country and also includes men. The book club membership numbers probably don’t count online book groups. The website Goodreads.com lists more than 10,000 of those.
Book groups go back a long way–but not as far back as Gutenberg. In the 15th century printed books tended to be on the religious side, and in many areas of the world at that time debating the merits of scripture could result in serious disfigurement. John Grisham and Ann Rice wouldn’t come along for some time–in fact, it was centuries after Johannes Gutenberg that the first modern novel was written.
“In 1840, Margaret Fuller [author and Emerson colleague] founded the first bookstore-sponsored club in Boston,” Wu writes in McSweeney’s, “and by the mid-1800’s, book clubs were spreading throughout the Midwest both as social events and intellectual opportunities.”
My group is both social and intellectual. The main reason I’m in the group is the other guys. We’ve been together for about seven years. We laugh and have fun. We enjoy each other’s company. And we read books. There’s just six of us now that one member of our group died. We’ve talked about adding someone, but we haven’t yet, perhaps over worries about upsetting the group’s chemistry. We shouldn’t be concerned, however, because we have a chemist in the group, as well as professionals from other fields, and two members are ivy league grads.
And for the most part, we like the same sort of books.
Explaining the exact types of books we like, however, is difficult. Our list over the years has included a broad selection of authors, topics and genres. And that’s the other reason I love the group. I’ve read dozens of wonderful books that likely I would never have been exposed to. Our authors have included Sara Gruen, Raymond Chandler, Bryce Courtenay, Erik Larson, Philip Roth, Constance Millard, Pat Conroy, Graham Greene–and even Steinbeck, Dickens and Dostoyevsky.
I prefer to call our book gathering a group instead of a club. I still remember when book club referred to an organization that sold books through the mail. I was thrilled when the first book I wrote was picked up by the Book of the Month Club. The BOMC is still around, though I don’t see its advertising anymore and I doubt it adds much to my CV.
Our group, like many others, likes to eat. We meet in late morning, discuss our selection at one or another of our homes, then head to a restaurant for lunch. Unlike many groups, however, we select our restaurants based on the book we’re reading. For example, when we read “Two Years Before the Mast,” we had seafood. When we read Faulkner we sought southern cooking, and Donne Leon’s latest Venice mystery led us to an Italian restaurant.
We have few rules. Each person takes a turn at selecting a book, something like dealer’s choice poker. Usually the person making the selection has read the book, but it’s not mandatory. It’s assumed that everyone will read the book and, although one member of our group sometimes finishes a last chapter while someone else drives him to the meeting, we all do. Novels predominate, although some members like history and biography, and as a result we’ve read some masterpieces in those genres.
We don’t always agree and that can lead to thought-provoking discussions–what a book group is all about. I could (but won’t) list two or three books we’ve read I thought were stinkers, but even those literary disasters provided me with keys to authors I will avoid in the future.
Our group doesn’t have a name. One of our members was lamenting that the other day. Maybe we should call ourselves the Children of the Arbat.
Katie Wu on the book club phenomenon
Note: Starting today I will post articles and stories on Tuesday afternoons, rather than Wednesday.