Saturday, May 21, 2011

Book clubs

One of the blurbs on the back of The Help (I got the hardback, but it was the 54th printing) caught my eye: “A button-pushing soon to be wildly popular novel…Book groups armed with hankies will talk and talk.”

I liked The Help, but this comment by Janet Maslin at the New York Times nailed it. Just as some books are clearly framed as screenplays, this book was designed for book clubs.

Book clubs are famously dominated by women – I’m sure there are some spurious statistics somewhere but I’m willing to bet at least 80%. And here is a book featuring three women narrators and depicting a clash between white Southern women and their “colored” maids. As I noted in my blog on the novel, all the men portrayed here are weak, bewildered creatures.

I don’t currently belong to a book group, but my wife, Andrea, belongs to two. Both of them meet monthly. The one is all women and has been going more than 15 years; the other has one male member. The one for the most part abjures white male writers and prefers women authors and writers of color. The other gravitates toward bestsellers.

Many bestsellers become so because they are quickly taken up by book clubs, even when they are of questionable merit (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society comes to mind). These often formulaic books become the subject of what Jon Stewart would no doubt call a clusterf#@k.

I have belonged to two book clubs since I came to Washington. One was at the Albermarle apartment house, where I lived when I first came here. It was a large-ish group and picked books haphazardly. The other was formed from the Chevy Chase listserv as a kind of anti-book club – it would be composed only of men and read exclusively nonfiction, pretty much the opposite of the standard women’s club reading fiction, though it quickly moved to a mix of fiction and nonfiction.

My main problem in each case was that sometimes the book of the month was not a book I was interested in. I have stacks of books that I have bought and not yet read. When I bought them, I thought I would like to read them, and often I find myself reading a book I bought several years ago. But obviously I can hardly keep pace with reading the books I choose, and don’t really have time to read books I’m not interested in.

This is the aspect of book clubs that some people relish – precisely that they will end up reading books they would not have picked. And I understand that. What I find more efficient is to talk about books with my friends, and when they recommend something I’ve never heard about, go look for that.

The main attraction of book clubs, of course, is that you get to discuss a book with others who have read it. And that’s great. Books give us a view of life, and it can be extremely beneficial to have an opportunity to talk that over. That’s what I miss.

I’m surprised, really, that there hasn’t been a bigger movement over the Web for virtual book clubs, where people randomly come together to discuss a book they have all read. Maybe such a thing exists, but when I last researched it, a year ago or so, I didn’t find anything really corresponding to that.

That certainly would not be as satisfying as the 15-year-old group Andrea belongs to, where the people know each other so well and can talk about anything.

And perhaps there is merit in a certain kind of book becoming a national book club favorite. My concern is that it has become something of a cliché. The Help is a nice enough book, but hardly worth the sales it has racked up. But, like a big movie, such a book can become a common cultural reference.

Never say never again. I don’t want to say I won’t join a book club again, but it would have to be when I’m devoting more time to reading than now, I think.

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