Fought Over Any Good Books Lately?

Written on December 11, 2008 by Felicia Appenteng in Arts & Cultures & Societies

(As published in the New York Times)


JOCELYN BOWIE was thrilled by the invitation to join a book group. She had just returned to her hometown, Bloomington, Ind., to take an administration job at Indiana University, and thought she had won a ticket to a top echelon. "I was hoping to network with all these women in upper-level jobs at I.U., then I found they were in the book group," she said. "I thought, ‘Great! They’ll see how wonderful I am, and we’ll have these great conversations about books.’ "

Ms. Bowie cannot pinpoint the precise moment when disillusion replaced delight. Maybe it was the evening she tried to persuade everyone to look beyond Oprah Winfrey‘s picks, "and they all said ‘What’s wrong with Oprah?’ " she said.

Or perhaps it was the meeting when she lobbied for literary classics like "Emma" and the rest of the group was abuzz about "The Secret Life of Bees," a pop-lit best seller.

The last straw came when the group picked "The Da Vinci Code" and someone suggested the discussion would be enriched by delving into the author’s source material. "It was bad enough that they wanted to read ‘Da Vinci Code’ in the first place," Ms. Bowie said, "but then they wanted to talk about it." She quit shortly after, making up a polite excuse: "I told the organizer, ‘You’re reading fiction, and I’m reading history right now.’ "

Yes, it’s a nice, high-minded idea to join a book group, a way to make friends and read books that might otherwise sit untouched. But what happens when you wind up hating all the literary selections — or the other members? Breaking up isn’t so hard to do when it means freedom from inane critical commentary, political maneuvering, hurt feelings, bad chick lit and even worse chardonnay.

"Who knew a book group could be such a soap opera?" said Barb Burg, senior vice president at Bantam Dell, which publishes many titles adopted by book groups. "You’d think it would just be about the book. But wherever I go, people want to talk to me about the infighting and the politics."

One member may push for John Updike, while everyone else is set on John Grisham. One person wants to have a glass of wine and talk about the book, while everyone else wants to get drunk and talk about their spouses. "There are all these power struggles about what book gets chosen," Ms. Burg said. Then come the complaints: "It’s too long, it’s too short, it’s not literary enough, it’s too literary … "

The literary societies of the 19th century seemed content to leave the drama to authors and poets, whom they discussed with great seriousness of purpose. Some book groups evolved from sewing circles, which "gave women a chance to exercise their intellect and have a social gathering," said Rachel W. Jacobsohn, author of "The Reading Group Handbook," which gives a history of the format plus dos and don’ts for modern hosts.

Today there are perhaps four million to five million book groups in the United States, and the number is thought to be rising, said Ann Kent, the founder of Book Group Expo, an annual gathering of readers and authors.

"I firmly believe there was an uptick in the number of book groups after 9/11, and I’m expecting another increase in these difficult economic times," she said. "We’re looking to stay connected and to have a form of entertainment that’s affordable, and book groups are an easy avenue for that."

Most groups are all-female, but there are plenty of all-male and coed ones. Lately there have emerged plenty of online-only book groups too, though — given the difficulty of flinging a drink in the face of a member who suggests reading Trollope — those are clearly a different animal.

And more clubs means more acrimony. Sometimes there is a rambler in the group, whose opinion far outlasts the natural interest of others, or a pedant, who never met a literary reference she did not yearn to sling. The most common cause of dissatisfaction and departures?

"It’s because there’s an ayatollah," said Esther Bushell, a professional book-group facilitator who leads a dozen suburban New York groups and charges $250 to $300 a member annually for her services. "This person expects to choose all the books and to take over all the discussions. And when I come on board, the ayatollah is threatened and doesn’t say anything." Like other facilitators, she is hired for the express purpose of bringing long-winded types in line.

For Doreen Orion, a psychiatrist in Boulder, Colo., the spoiler in her book group was a drama queen who turned every meeting into her own personal therapy session. Dr. Orion was used to such people in her practice, but in her personal life — well, no thanks. "There were always things going on in her life with relationships, and she’d want to talk about it," she said. "There’d be some weird thing in a book and she’d relate it to her life no matter what. Everything came back to her. It was really exhausting after a while."

What attracted Susan Farewell to a book group called the IlluminaTea were guidelines that precluded such off-putting antics. No therapy talk, no chitchat and no skipping meetings. "It was very high-minded," said Ms. Farewell, a travel writer in Westport, Conn. Members took turns selecting books, "and you felt that your choice was a measure of how intelligent and sophisticated and worldly you were," she said.

The high standards extended to the refreshment table. "When it was your month to host a meeting, you would do your interpretation of a tea, and the teas got very competitive," Ms. Farewell said. Homemade scones and Devonshire cream were par for the course, and Ms. Farewell recalls spending the day before her hostess stint making watercress and smoked salmon sandwiches.

This started to feel oppressive. "If the standards had been more relaxed, I would have stayed in the group," she said. "But I just felt I couldn’t keep getting clotted cream. I couldn’t work and carry on the formality and get through the novel every month, so I just said I couldn’t make the meetings anymore."

Some who leave one group find happiness in another. Dr. Orion and another woman broke from their original group and contacted another woman who had also left. "Then we secretly reconstituted as another group," Dr. Orion said. "We’ve been going strong for 10 years, but our experience has made us cautious about inviting new members. We’ve become very selective."

Nancy Atkins Peck, an artist and historian in Glen Rock, N.J., has also made a successful transition. Until the election cycle of 2004, she had loved her book group — the members read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," novels by Virginia Woolf "and sometimes a paperback of no importance," she said.

Then, after a presidential debate, an argument about the candidates ensued, "so it was decided that we couldn’t read any political books or have any political discussions anymore," recalled Ms. Peck, who had just suggested the group read a book about the Bush White House.

"It was nixed, and I just felt that was unnatural," given that the group had successfully discussed other sensitive issues, she said. She and her husband then joined a coed group, which has worked out well. "And we read a heck of a lot of political books," she said triumphantly.

Sometimes the problem is a life-stage mismatch among group members. "I know of a group where all but one member has young children," said Susanne Pari, author of the novel "The Fortune Catcher" and the program director at Book Group Expo. "They talk for 15 minutes about the book and then launch into a discussion of poopy diapers and nap times and preschool."

Then the one member who had nothing to bring to the soiled Pampers conversation announced she did not have time for the group. For etiquette reasons, "it’s very uncommon" for people to give the real reason for their disenchantment, Ms. Pari said.

Ms. Bushell, the book-group facilitator, tells of one woman who left a group "because she didn’t envision herself sitting around talking about a book — she thought some business networking would take place."

Another woman decamped because she wanted to read more chick lit. "I hate to sound ponderous," Ms. Bushell said, "but I have a certain moral obligation. I don’t feel I can be paid for leading a discussion about ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’"

At Book Passage, a store with two branches in the San Francisco area, Kate Larson is something of a Miss Lonely Hearts for newcomers and disgruntled book group members. "I collect names, and when I get 12 or 14 I ask them to come to a meeting at the store," she said. "If it looks like they all agree about what kinds of things they want to read, they’ve got a book club."

Ms. Larson uses a newsletter to help people find special-interest groups — say, in science fiction or spirituality. Groups made up of total strangers seem to last longer, she said, "because the focus is truly on the book."

As for Ms. Bowie of Indiana University, she was asked to join another group but has chosen to stay unaffiliated. "My experience was a real disappointment," she said. "Now when I look at a novel in a store and it has book group questions in the back, it almost puts me off from buying it."


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