The Four Rules for a Good Book Club
And how the group featured in the movie ‘Book Club’ breaks almost all of them
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The first rule of book club is: you have to read the book. It’s one, I’m happy to report, the ladies of the film Book Club are willing to follow. After a photoshop nightmare of an opening montage, in which we learn these four friends have been finding time in between marriages and divorces, law school and child-rearing to talk about books for several decades now, we see them settle in for a discussion on this month’s pick: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Rather naively, I thought we’d get to see what these four older women (played by screen icons Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Diane Keaton) actually thought about Strayed’s hiking memoir. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d gotten a nod to its Reese Witherspoon-led film adaptation (don’t people in book clubs often opt to watch the movie instead?). And while I admit “a judge, a hotel owner, a chef, and a widowed empty-nester walk into a suburban kitchen to discuss grief, heroin, and the Pacific Crest Trail” sounds like the set-up of a painfully unfunny joke, I was surprised — nay, outright offended — when Fonda’s Vivian went ahead and cut short their conversation on the best-selling book after two minutes. She was all too keen on handing out her pick for their following meeting: Fifty Shades of Grey.
Which brings me to the second rule of book club: you have to talk about the book. Okay, so maybe the Bill Holderman-directed movie wanted to move the plot right along. It was crucial for these women to get their hands on Mr. Grey — it’s what prompts the requisite self-reflections that late-in-life narratives like these are made of. It’s what makes Steenburgen’s Carol try to rekindle her sex life with her husband; what gives Keaton’s Diane the courage to go out with that handsome stranger; what incites Bergen’s Sharon to try her luck at online dating. But by the time they meet soon after to talk about E.L. James’ steamy book they again don’t even bother leafing through their ear-marked copies to share insights on what they’d read. Instead, they giggle giddily and squeal with glee when they get their hands on their next pick: Fifty Shades Darker. That’s when I began to fear the film’s title was slightly misleading.
Because a film called Book Club should be about a book club, and not every book-related gathering counts. A book club, a good book club, has rules. As a book club disciplinarian, I know whereof I speak.
Book Club also seemed designed to break the third rule of book club: don’t make it about yourself. To explain, allow me to, well, make it about myself. Last summer, in an attempt to up my social game — and driven to push back against a certain viral essay that was making the rounds (“Delete Grinder. Join Book Club.”) — I created my very own book club. Surely there was a market for a book club that billed itself not as an alternative to a hook-up app nor as an excuse to score a date. As I continue skidding into my mid-thirties and see the chances of meeting other gay men in socially acceptable situations (freelancing from home doesn’t quite lend itself to building a robust IRL social network), I figured gathering lit-inclined guys would be as perfect a socializing experiment as I could muster. It was surprisingly easier than I’d anticipated: I merely recruited like-minded Twitter acquaintances, suggested we take a stab at reading Call Me By Your Name together, and voilá.
Joining, let alone organizing, a book club was, I’ll admit, a gamble. While teaching freshman writing at Rutgers as a graduate student I often used “book club chat” as shorthand for the kind of solipsistic “this reminded me of that time…” monologues I discouraged when we sat down to think critically through whatever novel or essay we were reading that morning. But I figured I could avoid that sort of woolly thinking by enforcing some guidelines.
I’ve always been a staunch advocate for close reading, and so my motto in the classroom was always “text first.” In my years of teaching I’d learned that students love nothing more than to talk about themselves — often, though not exclusively, I found, as a way to mask the fact that they had not read the text. I was a stickler for staying with the text at hand. If you insist on telling me how your best friend is just as gossipy as Jane Austen’s Emma, I wanted to see you point me to places in the text where her love of gossip is apparent. If you’re wondering whether I imported that insufferable attitude into my book club, the answer is: obviously. I didn’t care that, like the women in Book Club remind us, there’s a large contingent of people out in the world who believe these types of gatherings are only tangentially related to the practice of reading and the art of conversation. (We’ve all seen that “My drinking club has a book problem” tote bag-ready mantra floating around the web, right?) If I was going to spend time reading a book, planning and making an on-theme baked good (we had cream-filled peach cookies that first time), and then moderating a discussion about it once a month, you’re damn sure I was going to have us focus on the book. Yes, that means there’s often a reading guide on my Notes app ahead of our Sunday meetings.
It’s served us well, for the most part: Infidels by Abdellah Taïa nurtured a great back and forth on the value of structure, Joseph Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties spurred lively disagreements over what constitutes a good sentence, while Maria Semple’s Tomorrow Will Be Different served as a catalyst for an all-too-heated discussion of whiteness in publishing. Conversely, I’ve often seen conversations flounder when they turn into thinly-veiled performative moments of self-analysis. You lose a crowd easily if you see a book as a compact mirror rather than a picture window.
Which brings me to the fourth and final rule of book club: have fun. And here’s where I must admit defeat in the wake of Book Club. For, while these four broads never could spend more than a minute conversing about the novels at hand (as the final pick they unsurprisingly go for James’ trilogy capper), they served as a reminder that ultimately it’s the company you keep that makes a book club worthwhile. I could go red in the face insisting we go around the room talking about what we think this novel is about or making sure we spend as much time looking at the style and language of our chosen book. But it wouldn’t be the same without a game group of guys that, yes, like Vivian, Carol, Diane, and Sharon, just want to find time to unwind with a glass of wine (or two or three) while celebrating the way books can truly bring us together.
Book Club is not a good model for a book club; it breaks almost all of the rules. But it’s a good reminder that not all book club rules are created equal.