Clubbed by a book club, and other literary revelations
I feel about book clubs the way Groucho felt about clubs in general: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” I suppose the word is out because I’ve never been invited to join a book club, which is probably best for both the books and the clubs.
If this pile of words didn’t tip you off, I’m a writer and, in my experience, writers are bores in numbers fewer than two. Perhaps three or more, with gin and preferably a round table, can get the wit flowing, but that’s only if someone else is picking up the tab. Otherwise a writer at a book club is like having a low-ranking member of the politburo tsk-tsking everything from the book, its author, the club members and whatever hors d’oeuvres might be available, which they will heartily graze regardless. Writers speak too long and too loudly and are prone to pretending as if they have an inside line as to why a work failed and how they might have fixed it had the publisher only asked.
A writer at a book club is about as useful to books as a firefighter in “Fahrenheit 451.” Book clubs are sacred spaces and they have remained relatively unchanged since their inception – about half an hour after Gutenberg called it a night and had a few friends over to look at his handiwork. And this is in the face of seismic shifts in the way books are published and consumed, from Kindles and iPads to nano-neuro narrative implants. The book club, in my recent experience, adheres to its traditional definition: “Book Club – noun, a blunt instrument by a bibliophile, occasionally used as a weapon upon writers.”
This is precisely what happened to me last week in Castro Valley, where I was invited to speak to a cadre of women who cannily camouflaged their drinking club in the genteel trappings of a literary luau. And I was to be the roast pig, but not before being bludgeoned into a quivering pulp of neurosis and existential horror. It was like walking into a lair of Bond villainesses and convincing yourself you have command of the room while being tied to your chair.
After some declaratory remarks about me, me, me, made by me, myself and I, the discussion rapidly descended to the subject of whom among them would make the most enjoyable “skin suit.” I later realized this meant wearing that person’s skin so as to experience their life “from the inside” a la “The Silence of the Lambs.” That honor went to our hostess, which is only polite, I suppose. Naturally, this “skin suit” notion became the leitmotif of the evening and I began to fret the fact my 44 long coat size meant there was probably enough of me for a pair of them.
When the conversation happened to turn back to me (or even the book), their inquiries started with softball questions, like why my coat lacked elbow patches and could I “replicate the saucy expression of my author photo?” Then they made me try. Repeatedly, under threat of being filleted. And worn.
The one woman who admitted not having read the book naturally had the most questions that managed to be ingeniously low- and highbrow simultaneously, leaving me nothing but the middlebrow within which to work. I tried to impress, they sharpened knives.
Another later played an unexpected “Sonoma” card by revealing that her single year at Sonoma Valley High School was the worst year of her life. She described the promiscuity of her sole friend with an array of slang that would make a locker room full of longshoremen throw their hands in the air in resignation.
Suffice it to say, I managed to escape with my hide intact but not without first learning that book clubs aren’t actually about books. They’re not even about fomenting discussion and insight. In this case, the book club is a clean, well-lighted place to laugh, share and occasionally get under each other’s skin.
• • •
To tie Daedalus Howell to a chair at your book club, visit DHowell.com.