It took me a while to realize that there are two kinds of book clubs in this world: the kind that talk about the book, and the kind that don’t.
I realized this after a lot of trial and error, starting with my very first club I started with a friend. She would invite people she knew, and I’d do the same.
Book Club #1
Her people and my people, though, were very different. The people she invited were all left-wing activist types, and they want to talk about the book. Not only that, but the books they choose were so guilt-inducing — inevitably about persecution and injustice. And while most of these women spent time actually fighting these forces, I have not.
Neither had the two people I invite to join. One of them stopped coming after two or three times. “I feel like some kind of a right-wing zealot in this group,” she told me. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
The other woman though, loved it. “These women are so stimulating,” she said. “They’re so full of ideas and experiences that I never seem to have time to even think about.”
Here’s the problem I identified: These smart, determined women spent so much time talking about the book that we never really got to know one another. If Josie mentioned that her son was having difficulties, Naomi would start talking about the power imbalance of the characters in the book again.
Elizabeth would start to tell us about how her mother-in-law would only eat from paper plates, but Karen would cut in to discuss whether that last chapter was a cop-out or an epiphany.
Book Club #2
Not surprisingly, that first book club fell apart pretty quickly. There were too many wrongs to right, and people couldn’t make the time for them. But in its place a new book group grows. This one was started by my friend, the “right-wing zealot.” The group she invited was tamer, and the controversies we tackled were smaller in scope.
They still took up a lot of time, though. What time (6 or 6:30?); location (whose house was it last time?); and what should we read (someone always brings the New York Times best-seller list) were the issues we faced.
“How about this one?”
“I already read it. I didn’t like it.”
“Oh … OK.”
“But that’s all right. If you all want to read it, we can still read it.”
“No, no … We don’t want to read a book you already read and didn’t even like. Let’s pick a different one. How about this?”
“Ohhh, “ says someone else. “I heard that’s really depressing.”
“OK, well, right now I’m not in the mood for a really depressing book,” another responds.
It didn’t really matter what we read: That month Mary’s mother was sick, and Mary told us the whole story of her mother’s remarkable, sad life. She was a good storyteller, and we were spellbound. She told us that in her own life, she and every one of her six siblings are obsessive about making their beds in the morning because of their mother’s habit of crawling back into hers after the kids had left for school. She told us that coming home from school, she always looked up at her mother’s window to see if the shade was up or down.
At this point another person, Rachel, broke in. She also remembered coming home from school and gauging the mood in the house. Her sign, she told us, was whether the butter had been put back in the refrigerator. If it was still sitting on the kitchen table from breakfast, she knew there was trouble in the house.
Mothers, memories, stories, families. It’s better than any book we could have picked from the best-seller list.
Book Club #3
In the book-club world, I’ve discovered, the biggest source of anxiety is food. My sister-in-law belongs to the most terrifying book club imaginable: You have to make food from whatever the book is that you’re reading.
I asked her, “What’s an example? What do people make?”
She said, “Well when we read Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the host had an actual ice statue with caviar. For A Gentleman in Moscow, the person served the Latvian stew with apricots, right from the book.”
She said, “When it’s my turn to choose the book, I purposely pick a book with no reference to food so I can just make lasagna and a cucumber salad.”
Even so, she’s been in this book club for 15 years.
When it comes to book-club food, as hard as those political do-gooders from my first book club fought for justice, that’s how hard I fight to have cheese and crackers at my present book club.
“Haven’t we made enough food for enough people in our collective lives?” I asked them.
Everyone agreed that yes, they have made too many dinners.
“But,” they said, “it’s really no big deal. I mean no pressure, you can just get a pizza.”
So every month, here we are. The table is fully set, and there is always a green salad. There is always a dessert.
As an activist, I’m a failure. I wish I had paid closer attention to the women in my first book group. Maybe I should have raised my fist. Even more shameful, I’m not even renegade enough to order a pizza when it’s my turn to host the book club.
Book Club #4
I comfort myself by thinking about this little offshoot book group I’m in right now. It’s delicious, like a secret affair. This book group has just three people. We have no meetings, no food, no schedule. We read only beach books. Then, we text each other:
Can you believe Wesley got with Marisa? What was the deal with that father anyway, and that toast he made at the wedding? And the food — lobster, and I mean, I don’t even like champagne but the way they pour it, and drink it, it sounds so delicious. But why did the stepmother wear that wine-colored dress with the sequins — for a summer wedding at the beach? Really??? No wonder the daughters all hate her.
In this little book group of three, talking about the book is like talking about Mary’s mother’s window shade, the butter in Rachel’s childhood kitchen, or that intriguing glimpse of Elizabeth’s mother in law and her preference for paper plates.
Book Club #5
Recently I’ve been living in New York. My childhood friend Ruthie is also living here. We ask each other, should we start a book club? Of course we should, for all the usual reasons, and more so now — we’re older and even more adrift than before.
It’s a small group, because we don’t know many people. Everyone we invite is of a certain age: retired from whatever jobs and careers they had. No one has anywhere in particular to go or be at any time. It’s an open-ended book club that starts at noon and somehow just drifts along until the light in the sky starts to fade. Do we talk about the book? Not really. We have chosen the book; we have (usually) read the book. What more is there to say?
No one cooks. We buy the food at Whole Foods or the nearest corner deli. We have a couple of bottles of wine, red and white, both open.
Someone says, “Oh Sarah, by the way … Did you find a place to stay at Woodstock?”
It turns out that Sarah, and Rebecca, who are friends outside the book club, were planning to attend the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.
“We did,” Sarah says. “We found a nice hotel. But can you believe this? I’ve spent the last two weeks shopping for what to wear.”
What a long book club way I’ve come! From those firebrands at the first book club to here, where we are talking about what to wear to Woodstock. I briefly wonder what would my first book club have thought, shopping for Woodstock, staying in a hotel and not camping in the mud.
Ellen says her son is moving back from Colorado. She says that he and his sister aren’t speaking. She refuses to give up a grudge she’s been holding against him for the last year. Rebecca says, “Honestly, I still have a grudge from 40 years ago.
“This girl Margaret, who threw me over for the cooler crowd. I’m still mad at her. Forty years later, can you believe it? I still don’t like people named Margaret.”
We pour a little wine and speculate on the nature of grudges. Dusk is gathering in the windows, and the lights are coming on outside. We reassure Ellen that her kids will get over it. It’s the nature of book clubs, as it is the nature of any gathering of this kind, to support and sustain. Why would we tell her anything other than what we all hope will be true?
Book Club #6
My niece invites me to her book club — a young women’s book club. I say, “That’s so sweet of you! Sure, I’ll come.” The book is a feminist science-fiction novel. At least it doesn’t make me feel guilty; it just makes me scared. My niece has made Rice Krispies treats and has put out triscuits and cheese. So liberated, this group, I think enviously. I can’t wait to find out who they all are.
We sit around a large square black granite table. I wait for the book club to begin. I wait and wait, but it never does. These young women — who are they? I never do find out. I’ve come full circle.
They never stop talking about the book.