Heather, My Love, There’s a New Sheriff in Town

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12/08/2008 12:30 PM |

Book club etiquette seems a strange, sensitive thing. We have never been part of a book club, although we occasionally think we ought to infiltrate one, if only to understand the weird social dynamics and subtextual judgments ("OMG you want to read AYN RAND? Get the shit out of my house, John Galt-lover!") that coexist within them. Perhaps now we no longer need to join to understand, given that the Times‘ Sunday Styles section has helpfully explained it all to us, first by lending a little back story and then delving into a metaphorical abuse of gender stereotypes:

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.

We learn that most of the four to five million book clubs in the United States are all female. And, quelle horror!, they’ve evolved into yet another way for grown adult ladies to behave like petty high-schoolers. Is this Heathers, or a discussion about the good-bad sex in an obscure John Updike short story? Maybe it’s both.

Writer Joanne Kaufman breaks down several forms of book club acrimony.
First, we have the high-minded woman who looks down with thin-lipped contempt at
the supposedly smart professors in her club for wanting to read Dan
Brown; she’s the smart girl who’s too smart for the smart kids and winds up graduating early to go read a lot of Susan Sontag essays at her progressive East Coast college. Second, the "ayatollah," i.e. the alpha-girl, Heather #1, who wants to lead
all the discussions and push her own opinions; the rest of the group
must follow her like meek puppies or be killed off. Next
we’re offered an example of the Chatty Cathy, another dominating femme fatale who believes she is beloved but actually annoys the hell out of
her unsentimental club members by co-opting the meetings as her own personal
therapy session. Then there are the book clubs that actually try to
stick as close to the 19th century literary society model as possible:
intense discussions, homemade scones that are supposed to seem effortless, competition over the quality of
the baked goods as well as the discussion points; it’s uptight and scary and sounds very Upper East Side, or like the girls who claimed they never studied for the PSATs, for which they received a National Merit Scholarship, because if you say you didn’t study you created an aura of “how did she do it” mystery around you. Finally, there are the book
clubs built out of the Rejected, those who can’t handle the
expectations of any of the aforementioned and secretly form their own
super-selective club rooted out of their past book club insecurities. This doesn’t sound so bad! We like this last one; Tina Fey would probably join.

Because it would upend Kaufman’s entire “book clubs equals Mean Girls” thesis statement, we don’t hear very much at all from people who actually love their
book clubs, look forward to meeting, to reading and choosing and
talking about they have read and chosen. Are they some kind of literary
holy grail? Or do they actually not exist?