What’s the Deal with Book Clubs?

Feb 23

I have been in five book clubs since graduating from college and I still haven’t quite figured out what they’re all about.

My first book club was a pleasing melange of my work and college friends.  We were all young and living in New York, and enjoyed our monthly meetings over dinner and wine at one of our apartments.  We gravitated toward literary fiction.  That book club set the bar high for those that followed: not only were the books and company great, but we also managed to have a mixed-gender group (uncommon among book clubs, I believe) that lasted for much of my time in the city.  A favorite book we read was Booker Prize winner, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – the haunting, breathtaking tale of twins Rahel and Estha growing up in 1960s India.

After I left New York, I was in two different book clubs at the school where I taught.  One was a quasi-official one in which a group of teachers, staff, and students at a mostly white, mostly upper class New England boarding school read books relevant to the experience of being “other.”  (“Official” in that the school paid for the books – score!  “Quasi” in that participation wasn’t required.)  Among the books we read, my favorite was probably Passing, Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance masterwork about a black woman who passes as white.

Gaining membership in the other book club felt something like being tapped into a secret society.  Hosted by the somewhat aloof wives of several of my male colleagues, this club was not generally open to faculty members.  It is not to my credit that I felt like I hit the popularity jackpot when I was invited to join.  So excited was I that I devoured all of their admittedly strong popular fiction selections and then never went to a single meeting.  Scheduling issues mixed with latent insecurity and I stayed home.  Among that group’s selections, I especially enjoyed the guilty pleasure of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl.  As a European history teacher, I could pass off my interest as professional curiosity; really I liked it because it was a fun, sexy summer read.

My next book club experience was similar to the prior one in that it was based at the school where I was teaching – and being asked to join made me feel like I had passed social muster.  Given that almost all of us were humanities teachers, the books we read were fairly serious and literary.  We were loyal about meeting once a month and enjoyed our potluck brunches.  It was through this particular book club that I found Wallace Stegner – through an introduction via Crossing to Safety – and that alone is enough to make me remember it fondly.

My current book club is somewhat of an enigma: it is a book club in name only.  You see, no one actually reads the book.  Each month one member chooses a book and then only one or two of us read it.  I’m not sure why.   Maybe the members don’t enjoy reading?  Maybe they don’t feel like they have time to?  Instead, we meet and eat and talk – mostly about our kids.  As much as I enjoy the company of the women in the group, as a bookworm I miss the chance to discuss books – and so I keep half an ear open for whispered word of other clubs possibly interested in recruiting a new member.

Does your group need another body?  I have a flush resume!

Have you ever been in a book club?  What makes book groups successful or unsuccessful?

Image: Mosman Library Book Club Kit Launch display by Mosman Library via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.