For years, the subject of book groups has been a sore one for me. I was invited to join one in the neighborhood back in 1999, went once, wrote a smart-alecky column about it in the Times, and immediately had my invitation rescinded. Can I help it that my editor headlined it I'm a Reader, Not a Follower?
This is one of the professional liabilities of being a columnist. I once had a party where half of the people gathered in the kitchen and told "Subject of Debbie" stories. When you write about your personal life, you take the risk of pissing off your friends and neighbors. Well, I guess Fran Schumer has that problem now.
The funny thing about the book group I pissed off was that, as if in retribution, they kept inviting new members who were all my friends. That's right. Virtually, everybody in my personal rolodex eventually became part of the group. I'd be at a party, and I'd hear two people say, "See you Thursday!" "OK!" and I'd say "What's going on Thursday?"
I guess when I quipped that I wouldn't want to belong to any group that would have me as a member, they took me seriously.
So imagine my surprise when suddenly I've been invited into not one, but two book groups. The first group consists of members of the Birthday Club, a group of neighbors that celebrates birthdays together on a regular basis. The second includes my friend Tammy, who's in my novel writing group, and Barbara, who goes to my synagogue. I agreed to try out this latter group, and I've even checked out the book, "Heart, You Bully, You Punk," from the library.
Just before this suprising rash of book club invitations, I'd tried to start a new book group - for writers, editors and agents only - with my friends Liza and Kalindi, but we never came up with any other members.
Anyway, in the spirit of full disclosure to all those who would discuss books with me on an organized basis, I'm re-printing my original book club column from the Times. I'm not writing the column these days, but I do write this weblog. If you let me in, you just might read about yourself here.
June 13, 1999, Sunday Late Edition - Final Section: 14NJ Page: 1 Column: 3 Desk: New Jersey Weekly Desk Length: 758 words JERSEY; Book Clubs? I'm a Reader, Not a Follower
By DEBRA GALANT
ON the floor next to my bed are three books: a book about ''talent education'' by Shinichi Suzuki (of the Suzuki music method), a book about child development by Stanley Greenspan, a psychiatrist, and ''The Puttermesser Papers,'' a novel by Cynthia Ozick.
Chances are I won't finish Suzuki or Greenspan, but I'll pick up a few interesting ideas from each. The jury is out on Ms. Ozick. I'm up to page 45, and frankly it's gotten weird. Whether it will be weird interesting or weird boring, I don't know, but I can tell you this: If it's weird boring, it's going right back to the library.
And this is the difference between myself and my neighbor Beth, who read the Ozick book even though she hated it after the first four pages. Beth belongs to a book group.
I don't. Which, when I think about it, is pretty strange. I am, after all, a passionate and voracious reader. I also enjoy gossiping and eating dessert, which are the other things that happen at book groups.
For years I wanted to get into a certain book group. Of course, an unwritten rule of etiquette for book groups is not asking to become a member. Most book groups are notoriously locked up, and trying to join would be like asking the captain of the football team to the Sadie Hawkins dance.
''Most people won't really come out and say, 'Can I join your book group?' '' says Phyllis Lowenthal, who belongs to a group in Montclair. ''They'll ask, 'How big is your book group?' or 'Are you thinking of expanding your book group?' ''
So I never asked. I just longed visibly. Finally, one day, my friend Liza told me she had gotten permission for me to join. As it happened, I had already read the book, ''Therapy,'' by David Lodge.
''Therapy'' is about a British television writer having a nervous breakdown, and as I was in the middle of a similar midlife crisis, I related to it. In this I was alone.
''Could anybody believe this character?'' somebody said. ''How could anybody be so neurotic and self-indulgent?'' Everybody nodded. Then someone said smugly, ''Only a MAN could carry on like this!''
I quickly deduced that this particular group was not sufficiently overwrought to interest me. It was a case of Groucho Marx: I didn't really want to belong to a group that would have me as a member.
Of course, I understand that I am missing out on a powerful sociological phenomenon, and probably a lot of fun. My friend Carla, who lives in Maplewood, has belonged to her group for eight years. Another friend, Cherry, from Glen Ridge, has belonged to hers for 25 years. Both speak of intimate bonds and passionate debates.
''It's a lot more than just books,'' Cherry says. ''We have been through the death of two children, three widowhoods, several divorces of our children. We could turn to a group of sympathetic women who could nurture us and lick our wounds.''
Cherry's group does not follow the traditional pattern of reading a book a month. Instead, everybody reports on what they've been reading.
''The first year, I was into the Bloomsbury authors and demanded that everybody read the Bloomsbury authors. The next year, Barbara was a Russian literature fanatic and we all read Russian literature,'' she explains. ''And the third year, came the rebellion.''
In Carla's group, the most passionate (literary) disagreement was over ''The Shipping News'' by Annie Proulx. The most transcendent meeting came when one member moved to what Carla calls ''a major house'' in another town. There they gathered, in the Jacuzzi, with chocolate mousse cake. What book they were reading that night, Carla doesn't remember. It hardly matters.
Of course, even if I did join a book group, I would probably end up in some nasty battle -- like the notorious one, many years ago, that split up a book group in our town, over whether working mothers should get priority in choosing whether to send their children to the coveted morning session in pre-school. Since there's another Pre-K battle simmering, I can safely predict that other groups will soon be on the skids.
But even without the politics, there would still be the problem of books I don't like.
''Reading what someone else selects?'' ponders Phyllis. ''You've got to be adaptable. You've got to flexible. That's life.''
Somebody else's life. I guess I'm not enough of a team player to join a book group.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company