Book Club Politics

My book club staged a coup last night, effectively ousting me as facilitator. It was horrifying. There is nothing more violent than a book club in upheaval. Blood spilled like so much ink, and many a paperback was rent in two.

In reality, I am taking a month off from the group. There are two reasons for this: 1) I really need to take a step back and consider whether our book club democracy would be better without me, and 2) I don’t want to be associated in any way with what they have planned.

Last night we met to discuss The Great Gatsby, which had been selected as the local community’s “big read.” Of the eight people in attendance, I was the only one who liked the book, so they were already angry with me for making them read it, support of cultural initiatives be damned.

For encouragement, I had given vintage paperback copies to the members who consistently attend book club, and they were all very gracious and appreciative. I had one extra copy, so I gave it to a newer member who had only attended one prior meeting. She chose to complain throughout the evening that she had only received the book a week before the meeting, despite my having warned her that this would be the case. Never once did she say “thank you.”

My mental state was a bit frayed by the end of the night (and at the end of a long month listening to their whining about the book selection), so I probably could have been more mature in my handling of what followed:

At the end of each meeting, we discuss our next selection, and last night a new member presented his suggestion first. It was a book published in 1995 that had been an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 1998. There is also a movie version, from 2000. It’s one of those books that always gets put in Super Buy stacks at Half Price Books because there are just too many paperback copies loose in the world. The book’s champion admitted he had not yet read it, and my mind’s eye saw him plucking it off the 99-cent clearance shelf at the local Hastings that afternoon. I’m not naming the book because my problem isn’t with the book itself, but the fact that someone was essentially suggesting we read the chick-lit equivalent of The Da Vinci Code.

From the beginning, our book club has assigned a theme to the book selections and meeting locations, and the rationale for this book was that Mother’s Day is in May and the main character is a mother. By way of comparison, my proposed book was meant to tie in with a few upcoming events featuring a local thought leader discussing “personal branding,” and I wanted to meet at a locally owned restaurant that had recently undergone a re-branding on one of those restaurant makeover TV shows.

It’s possible I put too much thought into the themes, but it is honestly my favorite part of book club and one of the reasons I keep doing it. And that may be that slipping away…

When I realized they were seriously considering the chick-lit book, I did something I’ve never done before at book club: I went outside to smoke a cigarette.

Never have I ever taken a break in the middle of book club, but I just could not be around them for another second. I was choking down the book snobbery that threatened to spew all over the table. This, after having let slip something along the lines of “if you don’t like Gatsby, maybe it’s because you’re not in on the joke.” I kept it in check though (and, believe it or not, I’m keeping it in check now). I told the group to discuss it amongst themselves and I walked away.

I’ve already lost this battle once, when I suggested an Irish theme for a March meeting (St. Patrick’s Day) and finally had to accept that their idea of Irish literature is Angela’s Ashes. I went along with it, though, because I was committed to the collaborative nature of a book club. I tried to be a benevolent dictator. Over the year that followed, however, this same book club stood me up for the Fahrenheit 451 meeting I had planned in a real live firehouse (during Banned Books Week, no less!), thought The Princess Bride was an actual abridgement of Florinese history, and showed up late to a packed screening of The Jungle Book only to talk through the entire climactic scene. I’ve stuck with them through all of this, but last night I found my breaking point.

As I said, my problem isn’t with the book. I’m sure it’s lovely. My problem is that the smart, innovative reading culture I’ve been trying to cultivate has suddenly devolved into the worst kind of book club stereotype. I had hoped the more consistent members understood our shared purpose and would pipe up, but they just sat there, their silence signifying acceptance.

And it gets worse.

The book in question is partially set inside a Walmart. While I’m not naming the title because this isn’t about the book (although you may have guessed it by now), I have no qualms about naming Walmart. We all know Walmart has awful business practices and is bad for communities. Any organization that tries to appeal to the creative class should be wary of promoting a Walmart agenda. I understand there are times when Walmart can’t be avoided, like when it’s the only place open before work and you realize you need yoga pants or replacement pantyhose or a French maid costume… but that’s another story for another day.

The book club is meeting at Walmart. Specifically, the fast food restaurant inside Walmart.

At this point in the evening, it had already been decided that I would not be attending the May meeting, and one of the members was astute enough to remark “See, Mandy, you leave for a month and we meet at Walmart.” A part of me thinks it’s a funny and clever way to theme the meeting, but then I see everything I was trying to do with the book club garbled and twisted into inanity and I wonder why I wasted my time at all. Maybe I’m a snob. Or maybe it’s time for me to let go, to give the book club the freedom to do things like meet at Walmart.

If they’ll have me, I’ll be back for the June meeting, when the plan is to read the personal branding book I had originally suggested. I hope all goes well in my absence. I’m even willing to bet this Walmart meeting will post some of the highest attendance numbers the book club has ever seen. But I am mortified. I can’t even bring myself to create the Facebook event, because I don’t want it to live on the internet next to my name. I have a personal brand to worry about, after all.

It’s a book club, emphasis on club, and if the majority of its members want to read 20-year-old chick lit and meet at Walmart, then that is who they are. Maybe I should just get out of their way.



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