NEW YORK, May 12 ― Michael Goldspiel is an inspired educator and a most cheerful fellow, a golden retriever among men. The assistant superintendent of schools in Roslyn, New York, he was describing plans for his new book club. It was going to be great, he told me. Not like his last club. His last club, forget it: “If I can’t make the occasional joke about the text or myself, I’m not interested.”
Suddenly Goldspiel’s mood darkened, though he gave no details. When it comes to the workings of his former book club, he has taken the vow of omertà. One thing, however, was clear. Like many passionate book club members before him, Goldspiel had gone rogue.
Since organizations like BookBrowse.com have been tracking them for the past decade, book clubs have risen gently in popularity. They have become a staple of a certain kind of literary life, a core part of a person’s identity: You Club, therefore you Are. Most people echo the sentiments of Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, who has founded numerous book clubs: “They are,” she says, “the joy of my life.”
For many, a book club is an oasis in an otherwise hectic life. Jonathan Burnham, the senior vice president and publisher of HarperCollins, has been in a children’s literature book club for the better part of a decade. For him, he said, “the club is enormously calming when you’re in the realm of change and unreliability. People may be going through marital or work difficulties, but in book club there is no need to divulge what is happening in your personal life.”
But that is one group. Book clubs can also be the epicenter of fierce friendships and enmity; a breeding ground for resentments large and small. They can be as fraught with drama as any romance, because for many they are a romance. A romance that comes with snacks.
Sometimes passions flare simply because of the books themselves. Three of Rubin’s book clubs are for “kid lit,” and people can react to Young Adult literature in particular like hormonal 15-year-olds: “The biggest division in YA involves the Twilight series,” she said. “You’re either on that train or off it. Big fights break out.”
Elizabeth St. Clair, a lawyer currently in two book clubs — one distinguished by the members’ interest in anthropology, the other, their interest in drinking — had her Waterloo in a previous club over Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.
The group consisted of several couples, including St. Clair and her boyfriend at the time. In one scene, she explains, “the main character is staying in a bunkhouse, and over the course of several nights a gorgeous strange woman comes to his bed and has sex with him. The men in the group thought this was the most romantic thing ever — dark, anonymous sex with no consequences. The women, on the other hand, were guffawing. When they pointed out that this was entirely a male fantasy, that few women would relish the prospect of anonymous sex with a possibly unattractive stranger in a bunk bed, the men felt insulted.
“Tensions were already high and everything kind of escalated,” St. Clair added. “People walked out.”
That was the last meeting of that club. It was also the beginning of the end of St. Clair’s relationship.
“We didn’t break up that night,” she said. “But the way he reacted to the book, well, that planted the seeds.”
Most would agree that the clubs can draw out — and amplify — certain personality types. Marcia Goldstein, a retired academic living in Laguna Woods, California, has participated in book clubs for decades. She detailed for me the various archetypes she has observed over the years. Among them: the Controllers and the Acquiescers.
“The Controllers are the most interesting,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of their opinions on books. They are compelled to control operational decisions” — the dates of meetings, the venues. “Sometimes we Acquiescers laugh at them behind their backs,” Goldstein added. “But we never struggle.”
Then there are the Underperformers, those members who never finish their books but show up anyway. Usually these people fall away from the group. But not always. One friend attended a club where a member would always show up unprepared, then become agitated if anyone discussed the ending, because she didn’t want it spoiled for her.
“It was really a whole new level of passive-aggressiveness,” she said.
One of the lovely qualities of book clubs is that they usually rotate to members’ homes, allowing people to hold a mini-party. But problems arise when hosts get competitive — or simply overzealous.
“I was invited to a group by a woman I didn’t know very well,” said Barbara Lippert, an advertising writer, “and I did the first reading — a so-so but still interesting novel about an academic in the 1920s. I arrived at the home of a lovely woman who owned a 12-room, perfectly appointed apartment on Central Park West.”
Part of this club’s tradition was that everyone sat down to a four-course dinner themed to the era in which the book was set, she explained: “This time it was roast beef and parsnips and some sort of incredibly complicated cake a character had described in one paragraph of the book. This woman had made the cake herself, and set a gorgeous table, all matching china and glassware and fresh flowers. “
“I was so intimidated by the prospect of reciprocating,” Lippert said, “it was the first and last time I ever attended.”
Excessive entertaining is at least generous and well-meaning. The biggest sin in book clubs, members say, involves the This-Book-Is-About-Me! Crowd — those who examine the author’s intentions entirely through the prism of their own experience.
“You really haven’t lived until you’ve heard a discussion of Elizabeth Bennet converted into the problems of a member’s granddaughter finding a husband,” griped one club member.
The novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz thoroughly agrees. “It’s the great divide between people who actually want to read and discuss the book and people for whom the gathering is a social event, where the idea is a brief roundup of plot/characters/themes, and then — let’s talk about where our kids are applying to college.”
All you need is one person on either side of the divide, Korelitz said, and that person is likely to get the boot. “It’s not pretty.”
Indeed, exclusion is one of the biggest fears for book club members. When a club disbands, it is not uncommon to think maybe it has disbanded only for you.
There are stories of members being openly asked to leave. Cynthia Heller, a physician in West Hartford, Connecticut, remembers being thrilled to be invited into a book club when she moved into town. She was then disinvited when the group was deemed too large.
“I got together with the other people who had been cut, and we called ourselves the Rejects,” she said.
But sometimes there is actual ghosting. Andrea Lavinthal, People magazine’s style and beauty director, has been with Book Club (that’s what they call it — like Fight Club, only, you know, books) since she graduated from college 15 years ago. Together, they have gone through weddings, babies, divorces and the deaths of parents, and Lavinthal said there was a secret to their longevity and closeness: Over the years, certain members would be “released.”
An email would go to the outlier, saying the club was going on hiatus for the summer. It wasn’t. Then the emails to that member would stop.
“Book Club has the most interesting, witty women I know,” Lavinthal said. “Some people just weren’t our brand.”
One time, a founding member got sentimental and tipsy at another member’s wedding and asked a stranger to join. That new member came and was soon released. The others won’t easily let her forget her infraction.
“We still call her the Weakest Link,” Lavinthal said
Perhaps this is the time to mention that I am not in any book clubs. Let me rephrase that. I have joined four of them. I have attended the first meetings. I let people know how deeply and passionately I felt about the book, and I guided them to proper opinions about it. There were those with the temerity to vigorously disagree with me. I never returned.
But we live in hope. Please, invite me to your book club. I will be an eager participant who brings deviled eggs and a flask of Cosmos.
Just don’t interrupt me. ― The New York Times