Confessions of a Book Club Dropout
Experts' best relationship advice - for your troubled book group.
Confessions of a Book Club Dropout
Who knew book clubs needed interventions?
What happens when good book groups go bad
By Susan Goldberg
As someone who loves books and who is also reasonably fond of groups, it never occurred to me that I would be a complete failure at book groups. But I was. The Chappaqua-based group with which I briefly was involved was composed of seven lovely and intelligent women whose company I genuinely enjoyed. As a kaffeeklatsch, we got along beautifully, but as a monthly book group, we turned out to be wildly dysfunctional. Half of us never got around to reading the assigned books and our meetings generally consisted of five or 10 minutes of literature-related talk before we’d degenerate into gossipy splinter groups. One meeting in particular stands out in my memory, thanks to a distressingly frank discussion of forceps, epidurals, and episiotomies—the grisly, if predictable, result of reading Midwives by Chris Bohjalian.
Where did we go wrong? According to Joan Ripley, who owns Second Story Bookshop in Chappaqua and runs the store’s 12-member book group in her home each month, our first mistake was not having a moderator, a book-group member designated to keep the discussion on track. While this role varies from group to group, the moderator generally comes prepared with specific questions and comments to stimulate group discussion, and frequently takes on the diplomatic task of keeping one person from dominating the conversation.
The members of Ripley’s own group are from different age groups and lifestyles. She suggests forming groups with “like-minded readers” instead of friends and acquaintances who are more likely to share the same viewpoint, which does not necessarily lead to interesting discussions. Plus, she warns, in groups of friends, “unrelated chatting can be more of a problem.”
But what if chatting is exactly what you’re looking for? “Denise” (who asked that her real name not be used), a fellow dropout from New Rochelle, describes her former book group as having an “academic-wannabe” vibe that was not really to her liking. “I always felt there was an unwritten grading system where the books, like Reading Lolita in Tehran, and conversation had to be of a certain caliber.” While she liked the women involved, Denise would have welcomed a “little more girl talk and a little less pressure to come prepared with ‘smart stuff’ to say.” On the plus side, the women were supportive when she left, leaving the door open for her to rejoin, and Denise does feel that the book club allowed her to expand her social circle and “forge some really nice friendships.” But for some groups, friendship is less important than having a common interest or a shared background.
Debra Monaco of North Salem is part of a thriving book group affiliated with the Jewish Family Congregation in South Salem. Its 12 members range in age from 30 to 75 and have had very different life experiences but, according to Monaco, “the group gives us a place within the community to focus on topics that interest us.” Meetings are held at the synagogue, with members taking turns selecting books and bringing snacks. The dynamic must be working, because they’ve been together for more than five years.
Carol Madole of Chappaqua is also part of a “specialized” book group. During a particularly stressful period with her kids, she joined a Katonah-Lewisboro-based group that reads parenting books exclusively such as From Diapers to Dating and Queen Bees and Wannabees. The fact that the group is outside of her hometown has turned out to be a definite plus since she can “be a little more honest with people when I’m not going to trip over them in town every day.” Her kids have grown out of their difficult phase, but Madole has stayed involved with the group for several years now. “The parenting books are informative,” she says, “and if nothing else, it gets me out of the house.”
For many people, it seems, just getting out of the house can be enough. Which raises the question: Are book groups just an intellectual spin on Girls’ Night Out? (I refer to “girls” here because men’s groups, while rumored to exist, are harder to track down than Sasquatch).
Pat Rind of Rye Brook, a psychology professor at SUNY Purchase and the author of Women’s Best Friendships: Beyond Betty, Veronica, Thelma and Louise, agrees that book groups have become a “socially acceptable excuse for mothers to go out at night.” Which is hardly a new idea since, as Rind points out, “women have always sought each other out to talk and share feelings.” But, as a self-described “serial book group dropout,” Rind has given up on being part of a book group herself since “I’d rather talk about a book with one or two friends who have a similar sensibility and sense of humor.” While skeptical about the idea of book groups in general, Rind was invited to join three separate groups by friends; each time, she decided she would “give it a shot,” but she has since concluded that “I’m generally not a group person.”
In fact, it’s submitting to the group dynamic that becomes a problem for many of us who have failed at book groups. We seek out groups in the misguided belief that we want to read outside our comfort zone, but then we’re appalled to find ourselves slogging through the collected works of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I couldn’t have agreed more when Rind said, “I don’t want to be told what to read.”
Thrilled to have a PhD backing me up, I was feeling pretty comfortable with my dropout status until I spoke with Diane Garrett, owner of Diane’s Books of Greenwich, Connecticut, and a consultant to numerous area book groups. “You have to stick it out,” insists Garrett, who zealously supports book groups as a way “to keep high-quality literature alive.” Garrett counsels book groups that are starting up or having problems (Who knew book groups needed interventions?), selecting the fictional works they will read and steering them towards discussion topics. She refers to this role as “planting my literary seeds” and performs it as a public service to her customers, without charging a fee. According to Garrett, a common mistake many groups make is giving up too easily. “No one,” she says, “is born knowing how to discuss literature. You have to learn as a group. It’s a journey you’re taking together.”
The key, she says, is selecting the right books—complex works of literature as opposed to chick lit or historical fiction. Garrett firmly believes that “if the books are right, any group can be successful.”
But who decides what the “right” books are? After many years of being at home with her kids, my friend, Susan, who lives in Bedford, joined a book group composed of highly intelligent professional women because she wanted to talk about “something besides recipes and what size pants my kid was wearing.” But she soon found that the books—well-written works of quality literature—were totally bumming her out. “Everything we read was about poverty and death and illness and suicide,” she said. One less-than-uplifting selection was In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, the real-life story of whalers trapped in a lifeboat turning to cannibalism to survive. Another was Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain, the story of an Irish woman’s experience with poverty and alcoholism—a book Susan dryly refers to as “Angela’s Ashes without the good parts.” As time went on, the meetings became so gloomy and depressing that, on book group night, “my husband would give me his condolences as I walked out the door.” And yet, Susan is still part of her group. “I enjoy the company of the women,” she says, “and it’s a good excuse for a suburban mother to read important works.” Luckily, the group now meets less frequently than it used to. According to Susan, this “makes the subject matter easier to take.”
Susan is not the only one who finds it hard to fully extricate herself from the lure of the group. My friend Denise describes herself as being “on sabbatical” from her group, while I find myself in a constant, if half-hearted, search for some elusive, utopian ideal of a book group. Why do so many of us harbor the hope that we will eventually get it right? Perhaps, as Diane Garrett says, “People being connected to each other is powerful. Add the power of books to that and the combination is explosive.”
Advice From The Pros
Nothing is foolproof, but there are some things you can do to improve your chances of having a successful book group:
- Never start a meeting by asking if people liked the book. If the answer is “no,” the conversation is over. Share opinions only at the end.
- Just say “no” to snacks. Food is a distraction, which encourages chatter and splinter group discussions.
- Inevitably, every group has one person who tries to dominate the discussion. A facilitator or moderator who comes prepared with con-versation topics should be able to control this.
Suggestions for Book-Group Starter Reading:
Recommended by bookstore owner Joan Ripley
- Atonement by Ian McEwan. “Could be considered the ultimate reading-group book—there’s so much to talk about that it would be impossible not to have an exciting discussion.”
- The Human Stain by Philip Roth. “Explores values, threats, racism—issues that can’t help but be debated and discussed.”
Recommended by bookstore owner Diane Garret:
- Plainsong by Kent Haruf. “The simplicity of this book is amazing because it tells the story of Everyman’s journey.”
- The Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart. “Explores the profundity and fragility of women’s friendships.”
- Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. “Explains our lives in all of their unexpected sadness and happiness.”
Susan Goldberg is a writer and editor from Mount Kisco. She has recently sworn off any book with the word “Shopaholic” in the title.