Nachman gets the rapt attention of the book club as he proposes
they next read the book he has displayed on his coffee table:
"God's Little Acre--The Illustrated Edition"
In defense of a book club
that serves good desserts
By GERALD NACHMAN
In a recent column, our own Michael Johnson launched a vile, well-aimed attack on book clubs, and it hurt--mainly because he scored a few good hits. What wounded me most was being stuck on the same shelf as the gooey, self-regarding Oprah and her famous book club, which is really a form of Winfrey fan club. Nonetheless, as a book-club member in semi-good standing, I shall attempt to rebut this defamatory assault.
It may help to know that Johnson is a rabid bookaholic, an ombibulous reader, and has been so ever since our college days. He is a one-man book group, knocking off volumes of every kind, from Terry Southern to Russian novels to, yes, The Jane Austen Book Club, and would only be slowed down by the need to read one book a month.
He disdains all such organizations, as normally do I. The book club is the only thing I belong to unless you count the American Automobile Association and the Newspaper Guild, which I was dragged into kicking and screaming. I didnt exactly join the book group but was sort of seduced into joining with the promise that the loyal members would read my then-upcoming book, Raised on Radio.
Perhaps to prove to myself that my motives were not purely selfish, I stayed in the group out of guilt, but mainly it was because I figured it was the only way I would ever wean myself off reading magazines and newspapers. After decades, I finally could immerse myself in all those world classics I failed to finish in my college novels class. I still have a yellowing 1959 bookmark stuck in a copy of You Cant Go Home Again.
As a deadline-driven creature, I needed a goad to force me to read some decent fiction before I ODd on celebrity profiles in Vanity Fair. At last, I would get to Crime and Punishment, War and Peace (or at least War), Dickens and other masters too shameful to name. Ive tried to fake it by reading book reviews and watching Masterpiece Theater but somehow it just aint the same. I took a class in short stories--reading, not writing them--and finally got a whiff of what Joyce, Kafka, Crane and Welty were all about--writers I never would have read, left to my own sluggish devices.
The dirty little secret of book clubs is that the books are not the main attraction. The real attractions are the company, the jokes, the social aspects--and, to be sure, the yummy desserts served by that months host after weve gone through the motions of an intelligent discussion where I am often the dissenting voice not always thrilled by my book mates choices. It would be a much better group, Im convinced, if they just let me select all the books.
"Isn't it hilarious? Mr. Nachman
hasn't attended a single
meeting since I served
rocky road blinis for dessert
and proposed we read
the new Stephen King novel!"
Three titles that Ive chosen--A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The Adventures of Augie March and Philip Roths American Pastorale--were huge hits. Several times, Ive played hooky after simply giving up on others selections after a few chapters--some pretty dreadful stuff, like Micheners Afghanistan, a book about the Myung people, and several novels set in the suddenly trendy Middle East: Reading Lolita in Teheran, some title involving kite-flying, a couple of mundane things set in India.
The book club has brought out the admittedly narrow, provincial, western, conservative streak in my so-called literary tastes. I am mostly, if not entirely, interested in books about, or set in, America and England, preferably between 1920 and 1960. The sorry truth is, I have little if any interest in books set in Asia, Africa, South America and most of Europe, which covers a fair amount of real estate. I have no patience with magic realism or other modern schools and styles. I demand books with structure, recognizable characters, a discernible theme and maybe a little wit, sex or romance.
In my head, I remain stuck in my senior year of college and desperately want to close the gaping holes in my literary education, which of course I could do on my own but realize that, at 67, this looks highly unlikely. I did the bulk of my serious reading in junior high, concluding with Les Miserables. I badly need the constant threat of the next book group meeting to prod me to check out a title and at least give it a shot.
Mr. Johnson rudely suspects I have caved into peer pressure and wonders, suspiciously, what kinds of people are in the club, by which he means bored housewives and boring pedants. Not at all. My fellow readers are, in fact, smart, articulate, curious, amusing people--a pediatrician, an architect, a former deputy attorney general, a medical social worker, a TV documentary producer, a computer programmer, a photographer--and me, the lowly writer in the bunch.
The talk is usually lively, except when we all agree, and can even turn a tad testy when people demand to know why we wasted our time on, say, a lumbering self-indulgent autobiography by William Saroyan called Obituaries, or a silly Bill Bryson travel book I loved, but the lousiest choices trigger the funniest comments, which helps.
Johnson e-mailed me, Are you sure youre not in the group just to meet girls? What a wicked thought! Me? Of course not. Everyone is very married and settled down, and theres no hanky-panky Im aware of, although there is an informal rule that no couples are allowed (except for two charter members). John Updike might write a different, more lubricious version, but this groups main focus is discussion and dessert.
Johnson also wonders, Dont you feel like youre in an English seminar? Yes and no, but then I like English seminars and in this one there are no term papers or exams, and you can gleefully ridicule somebody who has chosen a real stinker.
My main criticism of the club is that the 10 or so members tend to be too best seller-oriented and rarely suggest any of those classics I first joined the club to read. Mainly because theyve already read them, either in college when youre supposed to or in the book club itself during its nearly 30-year existence.
I belonged to the group 20 years ago but finally resigned, skulking away when I neglected to do the necessary home work: i.e., read the books. This time, Ive only cheated twice but fess up that I had rented the BBCs Anna Karenina when I got bogged down in the third chapter. I also listened to the audio book version of David McColloughs biography of John Adams, which included far more (even in the abridged version) than I needed to know. Theres also a tendency in the club toward weighty historical biographies by Robert Caro and other brilliant if rather long-winded historians.
But there are periodic surprises--some book I would never have read on my own and gobbled up, like Endurance, about the nearly doomed 1915 voyage of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew, all of whom almost perished when their ship ran aground in the Antarctic--a scary real-life suspense yarn, a Donner Party saga with a happier ending.
This month were reading Death of a Salesman (a play, for a change of pace), and while all of us have seen it, few have ever read it. Neither have I--yet, but Ive still got four entire days until the next meeting. And as I say, the post-discussion cake and ice cream, and the wisecracks, can make you forgive even the dreariest book.
©2005 by Gerald Nachman. The illustrations are from IMSI's Master Clips Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd. E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. This column first posted April 4, 2005.
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