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Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Club Formerly Known As Book

I like belonging to things – but I’ve historically been disdainful of belonging to conventional “groups”. In elementary and high school my best friend, Liz, and I used to rail against “the man”, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s meant Izod shirts, the color pink, upturned collars, and (the worst thing of all) Preppies! This disdain for preppiness wasn’t so easy to sustain. After all, I grew up in a town that was actually mentioned in The Preppy Handbook. Nevertheless, Liz and I decided to hate the preppies (we called them goody-goods) and all they stood for – which meant belonging to the Yacht Club, going to Ballroom Dancing class, and being on the field hockey team.

We were the baddy-bads. Or rather Liz insisted that she was a baddy-bad, but I was too good to be a baddy-bad which made me a baddy-good, which was better than being a goody-bad, but not as superior as the aforementioned baddy-bad.

So you can see I belonged to a group. It just wasn’t the goody-goods – who did everything by-the book until they were in late high school and started snorting too much cocaine.

But that’s another story.

Being that I’ve never been a full-fledged baddy-bad, and that I like to belong to things, as an adult I’ve sought out groups of people like myself, who weren’t quite the conventional “most popular” types but who were cool in their own right. Cool by virtue of not being too good.

That ruled out sororities – at least where I went to college where there wasn’t an Alpha Kappa Delta Pi-esque sorority for fat girls or engineering students. (And here I’m thinking of those fabulous girls in Kentucky (or was it Tennessee) who fought back against their sorority kicking them out for being “average” in looks and above average in brains.)

I joined the College Democrats (during the Bush I years) and hung out with the anti-establishment kids, and marched for abortion rights (Bush Stay Out of Mine). Not very exciting, I know. I guess I was still afraid to give myself over completely to the baddy-bads.

But just out of college a friend and I started a book club – the first of four I helped to found. In fact, I’ve probably belonged to one book club or another for 16 out of the last 18 years – two in DC, one in NC, and one here in Dar.

A book club is great – because it is an establishment act – but you can find anti-establishment people to be in it. You can read whatever you want.

But it is a lesson in group dynamics.

At the first get-together everyone has noble intents. They want to read interesting books. They want to get to know a new group of interesting people – often who have something in common with them. They want everyone to read the books assigned. They want to have stimulating and enlightening conversations. They want a book club to fill a perceived hole in their lives.

Book clubs seem like the answer.

But of course they aren’t. They only end up reflecting real life.

Annoying people join them
Conversation-hogs join them
Some people get upset with books that they didn’t pick out (and so I say they should have never been a member of a book club in the first place)
Some people chronically pick out bad books
Some only want to read fiction, others only non fiction
Most people have every intention of finishing books but almost never ever do on a regular basis

But also… people who become your friends for life join them. That is part of what makes them so cool.

Here in Dar, I co-founded a book club with my friends’ Eric and Laurie.

We had dinner one night about two months after I arrived and spent a lot of time talking about how there is a lot of surface conversation that happens in Dar. People talk about electricity, housing allowances, household staff, and tropical diseases – but it can sometimes be hard to have deep or intellectual conversation – perhaps because those little annoyances of life are so much closer to the surface here that they are almost always the topic du jour.

Our answer?

A book club.

We gathered 10 of the coolest people we knew at the time and had our first meeting at Eric’s house about 8 or 9 months ago. It was an awesome group of interesting and intellectual people. I was excited, motivated, ready to move forward. We decided on our book club “rules” – things like how often we would meet and how we would pick books and moderate the conversation. Onward and upward…


… you can’t get 10 of the same book here in Dar. And frankly, you can’t get very many interesting books at all. We were lucky to have 3 or 4 copies of a book floating among us in any given month. If we were better planners we could have ordered them from Amazon UK (which takes about 6 weeks and costs mucho dinero) or have friends bring them out for us.

But planning was not our forte.

And low and behold… our book club began to falter.

Last month we read White Man’s Burden. It is a perfect choice for a book club where 80% of the members work in international development. But boy… it was not easy to get through. I made it to page 80…. And I don’t think that anyone else in the group made it further. Come the third Tuesday of the month – no one was “available” for book club except myself and one other person.

I was minorly despondent. Was book club dead? On life support? What would I do without a “group” to belong to in Dar?

I sent out an APB and we all gathered at my place around the dinning room table over Secunda’s lasagna and Ayesha’s fabulous salad last week.

No one wanted to book club to die. But the patient wasn’t responding to the normal treatment. We needed to try something new, something still in clinical trials.

We are now officially, The Club Formally Known As Book.

Instead of reading books we are going to read articles (Laurie has CDs of the last 50 years of the New Yorker), watch movies (all bootleg, all the time), and talk.

We all want to belong. But we don’t want to read books anymore.

We are even going to meet every other week instead of once-a-month. We want to be with each other. We just don’t want to be burdened by books that are impossible to get or that we have to rush through in order to share with the next person on the waiting list.

I feel happy. Free.

Slightly unconventional.

We are a baddy-good book club. Just different enough to distinguish ourselves – but no so much as to alienate ourselves completely from goody-good book clubs everywhere.

This is familiar territory.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

what a radical idea for a book club! and also a good approach for parents of young children anywhere, who don't have time to read much except the headlines!
we'll stay tuned to see how it goes.
In atlanta I was in a book club that became known as the eating club formerly known as book.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Kit said...

I've never belonged to a book club yet, but this I would be tempted to join! Don't know if I'm a baddy-good or a goody-bad but one or the other probably fits.

9:36 PM  
Blogger Mom101 said...

I love this so much! I mentioned that this is what my mom does with a group, although they call it socratic something or other -sounds much fancier than an article club.

your favorite baddy-baddy (although I swear I never made it past baddy-goody stage, but my memory could be failing me)

10:25 PM  
Blogger laurie said...

What do you call it if some of us rebel against the baddy-good "Club Formally Known as Book" (which in all our future correspondence we should shorten to CFKAB -- pronunciation still open for group discussion at next week's PDG meeting)? I'm not proposing to rescind my membership to CFKAB, I just think that a goody-good splinter group might emerge out of the book club's revamping.

Did you know that there is a contingent of us proposing the formation of "Book Club away from Book Club?" Though, I suppose to be true to the new naming convention this break away group would now have to be called "Book Club away from CFKAB"? It will probably never get off the ground since we've targeted heady, dense scholarly books all over again. You'd think we'd have learned the first time. Karibu if you feel up to perhaps making the same mistake twice!

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Brent Fitzpatrick said...

A book club devoted to things other than books. Brilliant!! Was it the lack of book quantity or the annoying people that forced this change? :-)

Well, I am not sure if this is of interest but my wife and her friends are always talking about book clubs so we built an on-line community for book clubs, discussions, and reviews. We call it CurlingUp.com . I can't guarantee no annoying people but so far it has been good. We are really new (just about a month) but have already had an article in the Sacramento Bee written about us. You can read the article here.

Visit us and let us know what you think. Have fun in Tanzania!!!

5:49 AM  
Blogger Lori Richards said...

I loved reading your thoughts on books clubs! Hilarious! I can't believe you've belonged to so many of them!

Since you appear to love books as much as I do, you may want to check out my site:

BookWise - A Book Club That Pays

12:57 AM  

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