Essays

Laugh, and The Book Club Laughs With You

By posted at 6:00 am on January 8, 2013 19

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At Book Club, I’m a spy. I’m the only writer in this group of a dozen women. The others are scientists, doctors, social workers, winemakers. I’ve enjoyed the company of these smart, opinionated women immensely for nearly ten years, but I’d be lying if I said the camaraderie (and the pinot and the cheese) were the only reasons I participate. You see, my membership in the group gives me a real window into the reading habits of the very audience I’m trying to capture with my own fiction, a way to conduct a living room focus group, if you will, without anyone being the wiser. I can report that, over a decade, the tastes of the group have changed dramatically, in a way that doesn’t necessarily bode well for my own emerging career.

At Book Club, I’m also the secretary. One of my annual jobs is to compile a list of recommendations for the coming year. Every member offers a couple suggestions — title, author, and a one paragraph description typically cut and pasted from Amazon. Before sending out the list, I read through it closely, excited about all the interesting possibilities. And yet, my mind gets stuck on particular phrases in the descriptions that I know, from years of experience, will likely push the book out of contention.

I’m in the heads of these ladies, imagining the silent demerits they will offer to words like “heartbreaking,” (too sad), “epic” (too long), “thought-provoking” (meh, could go either way). Any book that features the loss of a child is out, no debate. Spousal abuse, cruelty to animals, anything hinting at a conservative world-view (unless it’s written by someone who abandoned that world-view), nope, nope, and nope.

coverIt wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago, most of us were just reaching our thirties. We’d yet to have children. We were career-focused, new transplants to our little town (brought here through our or our spouses’ jobs at the local college), and we were eager for friendship and mind-stimulation. We used to read at least a dozen books a year for the club. We read literary best-sellers by Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. We read classics, such as the collected stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We read topical nonfiction, such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. We had a night solely devoted to poems we loved. We read cookbooks. Once, just after Obama won his first election, we kicked off a meeting with a reading of Goodnight Bush, a parody of the classic Goodnight Moon we’d all soon enough be reading to our own children.

coverI vividly remember a meeting, about six years ago, when half of our small group was pregnant, myself included. We were propped uncomfortably on couches and chairs, using pillows strategically. Those who weren’t pregnant had left their infants or toddlers home with spouses. One nursed her newborn while we discussed my top pick for that year, Lorrie Moore’s bestselling story collection, Birds of America. I was the discussion leader, another relic that’s been lost.

Recommending this book was perhaps a mistake, not because I didn’t love it, but because I loved it too much, to the point of challenging anyone in the room to a knife fight lest they claim Moore was anything less than the greatest living writer. The trouble started when, one by one, members admitted they could not read the book’s show-stopper, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” a gut-wrenching story, yet full of Moore’s characteristic wit and humor, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the setting is a pediatric cancer ward.

“Does this kid die?” someone asked. A roomful of frightened eyes asked me the same question. My arms were crossed over my expanding belly. I knew that Moore’s story, though billed as fiction, was largely autobiographical. I knew, from some interview or another, that Moore’s son was alive and well. I urged people to go back to the story, said they’d be glad they did, but I’m not sure that anyone did so.

coverA similar thing happened when we picked Emma Donaghue’s Room. Thankfully, during the meeting to pick that year’s books, someone was there who had already read Room and could assure everyone that the boy and his mother do escape from their captor and survive. Without that member’s impassioned plea, it would not have been chosen, despite its stellar reviews. I worry about what our picks say about us, myself included. Although I might read more widely due to my profession as a writer, I, too, have found myself on many nights, once the children are finally asleep, the dishes washed, reaching for a decorating magazine by the side of my bed rather than the stack of National Book Award nominees. As I’m currently battling insomnia, my doctor warned me against reading anything too “heavy” right before sleep. And so, the books must wait until I have a swath of time during the day when I can absorb myself in something more challenging. But with two young children, that just isn’t going to happen.

Is that a lame excuse? Have I, and our other club members, become lazy? Complacent? Has motherhood made us incapable of putting literary tragedy in its proper perspective? Or are we just…tired? Are we victims of the mentality that says we must do it all or die trying? (Books on this topic will almost always get the nod.) Is it so wrong to simply want to zone out with a magazine, or a Will Ferrell movie, instead of the latest Oscar nominee for Best Picture?

This year, we will pick only five books. It was a decision made last year when the club was on life support. Attendance had dwindled to nothing, and something had to be done. We threw all the former rules aside. Can’t make most of the meetings? That’s okay! Come whenever! Come to the meeting, even if you haven’t read the book! Bring a friend, who also hasn’t read the book! We now have two purely social meetings each year, one a potluck that includes our families. The other five meetings feature discussion of a brief magazine article of interest to the group, usually something from The New Yorker or The Atlantic, which can be read over lunch the day of the meeting.

Though membership has changed, the Book Club has been with me since I started writing my debut novel five years ago. I’m finally done and showing it to agents, but will I show it to club members? I’m not so sure I can just yet. I worry about their reaction. Though there is humor and lightheartedness scattered throughout, my book is about serious themes, a controversial mix of religion and politics and science, all the things one is not supposed to talk about in polite company. If I anonymously offered a description of it in the list of recommendations, would it get chosen? I’m afraid I know the answer to that question, and it makes my eye start to twitch.

In any case, we’ve gravitated from novels to mostly non-fiction, titles that impact our lives directly, such as books examining child-rearing, work/life balance, or books that show us the science of our decision making. If they’re going to take the time to read them, members want books they can use. I read the list of recommendations again before sending it to the group. “Hilarious,” (check) “Unputdownable,” (this is a word now? check) “Eye-opening” (could go either way). I look over the books I’d personally like to read, even when they inevitably don’t get chosen. These are books that might make me sad, but that I think ultimately will give me an understanding of what it means to be human. These books will be my non-required reading, should I be ambitious enough at the end of a long day to put down the decorating magazines.

And so the voting begins. I feel bad for the excellent authors who won’t make our list. Laugh, I want to tell them, and the Book Club laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone.

Image: Sean M. Freese/Flickr





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19 Responses to “Laugh, and The Book Club Laughs With You”

  1. kim
    at 5:07 pm on January 8, 2013

    Mothers are a really dreary boring group of people to talk to, for exactly this reason. I don’t think it’s because they are tired – I think it’s because looking at your own child 24 hours a day is an inherently inward exercise. It is all about them, and so also all about you. How can you read literature when you can’t accept the notion of people outside of your created family?

  2. paula bomer
    at 5:36 pm on January 8, 2013

    Hey Kim, I take issue with your comment. Mothers aren’t just mothers- they are people. And like most people, they vary a lot. Some are fat, some are rich, some are funny, and some, like you, say some very silly things- cringe inducing things.

  3. Karin
    at 9:56 pm on January 8, 2013

    I wanted to assure you that not all book clubs are on the decline, nor shun controversy. I come from a town where there are more reading groups than bars; where members read 3 or 4 or 12 more books a month in addition to our selected one; where the book selected is chosen because it is not something we would choose on our own (not useful, nor entertaining). Perhaps it’s because most of the members are seniors who are not busy with child rearing, but there is an audience for your book.
    I too started my book club membership as a spy–as a reporter but my coming out was unavoidable as they saw the printed article. Hope your cover is not busted.

  4. ian
    at 6:07 am on January 9, 2013

    What a terrifying depiction of how presumably intelligent, well-educated people can slip into blinkered groupthink. I’m afraid that Kim’s comment is at least somewhat accurate, when applied to middle-class parents in western societies.

  5. iro
    at 8:35 am on January 9, 2013

    The equation, common now, between art and entertainment makes it useless to make any effort to understand art.

    If there is no truth in the work of art, there is no reason to not just choose the pleasant or the useful.

  6. Natalie
    at 5:06 pm on January 9, 2013

    These people simply sound uninterested, and, therefore, uninteresting. Join a new reading group–there are plenty of interested, vibrant people. Mothers included.

  7. James
    at 6:28 pm on January 9, 2013

    I work in a well known bookstore. Everyday I see people, mostly women but not all, asking me for recommendations, and when I offer this or that outstanding novel, they almost always add that they’re looking for something ” … light and fun.”

    I think people are getting dumber. I really do. It’s like they don’t want to think unless they’re getting paid for it, thinking is something you do at work, and when you’re not at work and enjoying your leisure time, you just get to turn your mind off.

    So they end up choosing books the way the would choose, say, a pillow.

    Still there must be some other serious readers out there. I’m with those who say the author should find some new friends, or at least a new book club.

  8. EM
    at 12:19 am on January 10, 2013

    I wonder, as you seem to do, how much of this “disinterest” comes from where these people are in their lives. I cannot fully speak from my own experience falling closer to the age-group when the book club when it was started. However, I think of my own mother and how when my siblings and I were younger, I think, she would have really shared the opinions of your book group. However, now that we’ve grown up and (some of us) have moved out, I see her gravitating more and more towards books that could be called “heartbreaking,” “epic”, “thought-provoking.” I can offer a number of practical theories to this (she has more time now, she bought herself an e-reader, etc.); however, I think part of this shift in interest is because my mother is no longer afraid of these books, she’s not afraid of books that don’t have happy endings, or that are long, or taxing. She wants to see protagonists who suffer loss and experience pain, she wants to see a world that reflects the world we live in and she wants to see characters who endure as she’s endured. I suppose what I am trying to say is that perhaps there is still hope for your book group. Although the desire now is for more lighthearted texts, I can definitely envision a future in which that desire for heavier topics is revived.

  9. Jennifer
    at 5:22 am on January 10, 2013

    You have a great point in this article, Marcy. I do believe most readers enjoy something that takes them for a ride, whether it’s funny or not, ie. the success of Gone Girl. Writers who make the reader work for the story aren’t getting the needs of the reader. At the end of a long day, most of us need to counterbalance the daily grind on the wings of a great story. Thank you for being the book club spy, and I hope you find a reading group that can be a bit more your style.

  10. Sarah kitas
    at 5:25 pm on January 10, 2013

    Great article! As secretary of a book club in Switzerland I loved your insights. We are 10 with 7 different nationalities. A fact that I find very enriching. We discuss in German and English and a little Irish for good measure (I’m Irish). we are expanding and would be interested to hear if you have any thoughts about how big the club can become before there is a loss of quality.
    Kind regards.
    Sarah

  11. anna s.
    at 1:38 pm on January 12, 2013

    Funny, my book club seems to shun the stuff that the author’s embraces. Perhaps the author should seek out a club which is less content to read stuff that just placates their lifestyle?

    In the last four months, the book club I belong to read Thackerey’s Vanity Fair (holy crap, that was a good book. Challenging and difficult, but excellent. Our book club actually stayed up to two AM discussing it!); Naomi Novik’s Her Majesty’s Dragon (interesting historical fantasy, and a prompt for a cool discussion of Napoleonic values); HG Wells’s The Time Machine (classic sci-fi is always fun, because it prompts discussion about the differences between authorial concerns then and now); and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (holy giant gender discussion blowout. I think some of our male members got schooled on this one.)

    Our book club is often challenging, but we all agree that we pick books because we want to be curious. Our members are very diverse and we like reading each others’ choices, because it broadens us all. I think that’s the opposite of lazy or complacent. Perhaps the writer should seek out a book club that loves books because they love to cultivate a sense of curiosity.

  12. Gwen G
    at 2:03 pm on January 12, 2013

    You have articulated something I can trace in my own life. During the years that I was raising small children my reading shifted from novels to non-fiction. I had a disabled child, my husband became ill and eventually died. I couldn’t become emotionally involved with fictional people dealing with Big Issues in life because I had more than enough to handle in my own life. So I read history, where the outcome was know-able, and I re-read my favorite classic novels–lots of Austen for escape. When you’re young and you don’t think the bad stuff in life is going to happen to you, you feel safe and can read about it. When you’re having to husband your emotional energy in order to care deeply for others’ needs, you are going to be more cautious about immersing yourself in a fictional world–at least if you’re the kind of reader who really gets into what you’re reading. My kids are young adults now, and I’m trying to challenge myself a little more, but fewer books really measure up to life and its riches of both sorrow and joy.

  13. Funbud
    at 2:06 pm on January 12, 2013

    See also: “Xingu”, Edith Wharton’s wonderful, ironic story about a suburban book club. It’s been widely anthologized and is available on the web.

  14. Scott L.
    at 2:56 pm on January 12, 2013

    “cruelty to animals, . . . nope, nope, and nope.”

    So it must be a vegan book club. I wish I could find one. I totally agree that cruelty to animals is completely unacceptable, so of course I boycott all animal products.

    Thanks.

  15. Judith
    at 3:41 pm on January 12, 2013

    I our book club started 5 years ago, we were all professional woman and men. By now all but one of the women have children, and it’s really starting to affect the group.

    Firstly, a social gap is growing between the childless and the mothers. As working mothers with little time for socialising, the book club is the only opportunity us moms get to exchange qute anecdotes, ask advice and share frustrations. But of course that topic is only interesting up to a rather limited point to the child-free and they are getting quite irritated at the baby talk.

    But a difference in book preference is also developing, with a growing reluctance to engage with more challenging texts; ‘easy read’, ‘page turner’ – these are the terms that generate interest in a book. And I agree with the author that tiredness is the main reason.

    Parenting young children as well as working full time means you are just permanently. dog, tired. The mothers read to relax, not to be mentally challenged. Good lord knows between work and a toddler you don’t need more mental challenges. And a serious book, especially a longer serious book, can’t be read in semi-conscious 10 minute sections before passing out.

    My guess (hope??!!) is that this is a phase that will pass as the children age and sanity slowly creeps back into our lives. I very much miss the heavier tomes in our canon.

  16. Judith
    at 3:53 pm on January 12, 2013

    Gwen G, thanks for such an insightful comment. “fewer books really measure up to life and its riches of both sorrow and joy” – I”m going to think about that one a bit.

  17. Mary
    at 4:14 pm on January 12, 2013

    I am in a book club that has been going for a long time; now the children are grown. But we are still mostly busy and hardworking. Our book club also has men; we find we like having their perspective. We have married and single people (some that were married are single; some that were single have married).

    Over time we hit a balance between “light, fun” and “heavy” reads. We found with the lighter stuff, there was nothing to discuss. Eventually we got bored with having a book club with no book talk. We decided that we did want to have a discussion about books, rather than a gossip session. The most memorable sessions are the ones where the book presents us with something to argue about, not just discuss.

    The men and singles sort of keep us honest–no chance we’ll get into lengthy discussions of breastfeeding or menopause. The guys also prefer nonfiction–so we alternate.

    Readability is, however, very important to most in the book club. Some of the interesting but denser works (anything by Jared Diamond) have been panned, while a boat anchor like “Team of Rivals” was a favorite because it was a page turner despite its size.

    So we look for meaty fiction and nonfiction–but with good readability.

  18. Shelley
    at 1:40 pm on January 14, 2013

    Ruling out conservative mindset books is just ruling out the mindset that rules out other mindsets.

  19. Kelly C
    at 11:24 am on January 23, 2013

    Perhaps the author needs to seek out or start her own book club? I love my book club that is based on Meetup.com. Meetup is a website started post-9/11 to help people use the internet to get off the internet & actually meetup in person based on any type of interest. My book club has been going for 4+ years now with rotating members because people come when their schedule allows & we always have new people joining the group. Therefore we aren’t an exclusive group of girlfriends who end up talking about our personal lives. We actually talk about the book!

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