When someone drops out, the club invites someone else to join. How come I’ve never been asked? I’ve occasionally been consulted about whether certain female acquaintances might be interested in joining a club with a vacancy. If only I had the chutzpah of Dick Chaney (who, when asked by the Bushes to choose a vice-presidential candidate to run with the clan’s lovable ne’er-do-well and make sure he didn’t screw things up, chose himself).
Gauging by the book club discussion questions that have begun to appear as appendices to best-sellers, publishers assume that the readers in book clubs are female.
Is Vronsky a worthy and appropriate lover for the passionate Anna? In what ways does he potentially fall short in this role?
The discussion questions for a men-only book club would be much more elevated:
Would Vronsky be just as attractive to women if he wore regular clothes instead of a uniform with shiny black riding boots? Can you imagine Anna in shiny black riding boots?
Believe it or not, I was a book club pioneer – before book clubs had been appropriated by the Oprahgeist and began to be treated by publishers’ marketing departments as a combination trunk show and kaffeeklatsch. Back in 1994, Anna Livia and I, ensconced or marooned (depending on one’s point of view) in the middle of eighty acres which, themselves, were in the middle of nowhere, yearning to discuss with our friends something other than the weather or which of the nearby supermarkets (nearby meant within twenty-five miles) had the best produce section (granted, these are important topics, but still...), we formed a once-a-month reading group.
The initial membership was three couples – ourselves, a pair of countrified progressive educators and a theater couple, an actor and a costume designer, recently transplanted from New York – and a single woman who was a shrink.
To avoid contentious deliberations, we decided that, going in a round robin, each member would get to choose the book for the next meeting. The choices for the first five months were: Gilgamesh, the Nibelungenlied, The Age of Innocence, King Lear and Harold Nicolson’s Some People.
Meanwhile, the shrink had invited a friend along to a meeting, a social worker from across the river. With the woman sitting right there, we were asked if the friend could join the group. It was one of those cases where “Would you mind?” becomes a rhetorical question.
We did mind. We put up with an Edith Wharton characterized as a traitor to feminism, then a Lear who was a victim of ageism, but when we were scolded for wasting our time on Nicolson’s memoir because it was nothing but an encomium to the British upper-class, (evidently, “We were not amused”) the book club dissolved in despair.
That little history might go some way towards excusing current book clubs, with their strict limits on new members and their wariness about inviting anyone (such as a man) who might rock the boat.