There's something particularly distasteful about the tone of yesterday's Sunday Styles piece on book clubs. This woman joins a book group hoping to "network" with women in "upper echelon" positions, only to find they want to read Oprah's picks and Dan Brown. “'It was bad enough that they wanted to read "Da Vinci Code" in the first place,' Ms. Bowie said, 'but then they wanted to talk about it.'” Oh, the trials of being smarter than everyone else!
We're certainly willing to believe book clubs — like any club, particularly one designed to illustrate aesthetics - can be fraught.
One member may push for John Updike, while everyone else is set on John Grisham. One person wants to have a glass of wine and talk about the book, while everyone else wants to get drunk and talk about their spouses. “There are all these power struggles about what book gets chosen,” Ms. Burg said. Then come the complaints: “It’s too long, it’s too short, it’s not literary enough, it’s too literary ... ”
An upswing in the number of book groups has apparently necessitated the need for something called a "professional book-group facilitator" who charges $250 to $300 per member for her mediating services. People quoted in the piece complain about narcissists who hog the floor, competitive refreshments, bans on political talk, oversharers and domineering "ayatollahs."
Sure, this is why some of us don't join book groups - my mom, for instance, finds them unbearable. But, and this is what the Times piece doesn't address, it's exactly why some of us do! Most people can read on their own and even put together some kind of high-minded booklist. But the point of a social gathering, as much as sharing opinions and stimulating thought, is the thrill of other personalities, with their idiosyncrasies, their occasional pomposity, their quirks. Petty? Maybe — but there is a place for this. As in a good college class, a discussion is often enlivened by the presence of someone smart but insufferable or another who goes on bizarre tangents. Isn't this, after all, what human contact is — and part of the point of taking a chance on a group of strangers? In a sense, the article's taking on several different issues — social friction and intellectual dissonance — and pretending they're the same. Yes, it would be irritating to find a club was out of synch with one's interests...but can't you determine that beforehand rather than joining a group only to sneer at the other members? Whereas personality conflict is inevitable, this other sort of disappointment seems fairly avoidable — certainly the nastiness is. The bibliophile profiled at the beginning of the article may have left her group in a dissatisfied huff, but I'm willing to bet the rest of the circle heaved a hearty sigh of relief. And I'd kind of like to have heard their side.
Fought Over Any Good Books Lately? [New York Times]