Book clubs—the phrase alone conjures up the taste of white wine and melty cheese cubes and a vision of copies of The Deep End of the Ocean, only the first halves even slightly perused. We can thank Oprah for this template, despite her best intentions, but it’s also kind of a primal urge to get together and drink, and a slightly-less primal urge to conceal this liquoring-up behind the veneer of literature. When I was a waiter one summer in college, I passed by a group reading a Carol Shields novel; I mentioned to one of the women I’d liked reading The Stone Diaries, and she looked befuddled before noticing the book in front of her. When I made a second pass, one of the group was describing the “first time I went to the Outer Banks.”
Two college friends and I didn’t have the excuse of getting together over snacks and drinks to discuss cheesy literature—one of the three of us was in France, and, having tired slightly of the same sorts of daily Gchats (just as the two Americans were waking up for work, our French friend was in the midst of a long Gallic lunch break),
The friend in France suggested it in a Gchat to me. She’d just received a box of books from America—she isn’t planning on going back for a while. We got our third friend on board and then tried to choose a book. The Frenchwoman mainly reads literary theory, so of her huge pile, I proposed one of the few novels, John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman (I am her lower-culture friend, having suggested to her Room and bullied her into Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother). I had Fowles lying around, and had read it before, neither of which was true of, like, Roland Barthes.
“I’m not reading anything about French maids,” said the third friend, the one also on American time, when I emailed her announcing what we’d be reading together. The French lieutenant’s woman was a prostitute, as I recalled. Our third friend was CC-ed. This would be all the entertainment she needed for the month, all that a book could provide and more. She suggested some other titles, including Anna Karenina, but I work long hours and, toting the book onto the subway for a ride home, would probably fling it, or myself, under the train’s wheels. Maybe a book club wasn’t for us. We already knew we liked one another—there was no ice to break—and there was no real way we’d ever get together in the near future. Maybe the wine people drink at book clubs is to assuage the psychic pain of having to actually choose a book to read as a group. We were all old enough, maybe, to read our own stuff, or not old enough to sacrifice decision for the group haziness of compromise that fades into discussion of good past vacations.
I lost interest in the discussion and tried, instead, to figure out a date that my Fowles-loathing American friend and I could meet for drinks with some other people. We Gchatted for a while to no avail, and she suggested dinner instead, but I couldn’t make it. No firm decision was reached and I went idle. I went home and fell asleep without reading anything (I thought about Netflix Instant but flipped through the Word document I keep of titles to watch and couldn’t decide on anything). The next day, before work, I picked a book off my shelf that I had read before, one I already knew that I liked.