For years, when I lived in another city, I belonged to a men’s book club. I know; you hear lots about women’s book clubs but rarely men’s. Men don’t read as much as women and when they do, they are pretty much either business management books, sports biographies or something by Malcolm Gladwell.
I had originally asked to join a book club held at a neighbour’s house down the street, but all the members were women and I was told I wouldn’t be a good fit. The organizer said they had all been friends since high school and I probably wouldn’t get their references or in-jokes. What she really meant of course was that I was male and my testosterone-tinged views would drastically alter the ambience of the group. And when I thought about it, I had to agree. They would probably only read fiction and my aversion to the works of Munro and Atwood would inevitably be revealed. It would’ve ended badly.
But she told me she had a friend who had organized another book club that was all guys. “Send him an email. He might be willing to take on a new member.” And so it was that I joined six other members of my gender at a brew pub to discuss a new book — or at least new to us — at each monthly meeting.
The drill was that they alternated between fiction and non-fiction and, as much as possible, between male and female authors. The books chosen would be from a list of suggestions drawn up at the beginning of the year and voted on by the members. When I arrived the first night they were in the middle of discussing their most recent choice, Edward Rutherfurd’s 1,100 page Sarum, a history of Salisbury, England. Not a good sign, I thought, but at least they’d finished it and I wouldn’t have to wade my way through. That would require more intellectual stamina than I could muster.
Fortunately it turned out to be a rare case of mismatched interests. Many of their books were ones I would never have considered on my own but turned out to be hugely interesting. Far from the kinds of guy-books I mentioned, their choices were weirdly and sometimes brilliantly idiosyncratic. Who would’ve thought they would choose a book like Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems — a collection of verse with accompanying essays by Paglia?
Or this, a classic that turned the field of historiography upside down, but that no one, apart from academic specialists, seems to have heard of: The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. It’s the story of a 16th century Italian peasant who, having read and thought about the world, decides that the teachings of the Catholic Church are deeply flawed. He can’t help himself. He talks publicly and incessantly about his doubts, and after a number of trials by The Inquisition, he’s executed. It’s the voice of a thoroughly modern man echoing from a small village in Italy 400 years ago. It’s amazing.
The all-time favourite was Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnick, written during his posting for a few years to Paris, living in a flat near the Luxemburg Gardens. Apart from his commentary on the quirks of French culture, its success, I think, lies in a children’s story that’s embedded in the centre. Gopnick invents a bedtime tale for his son, to remind him of his North American roots, about a baseball player who can hit the ball into the next borough. It’s enchanting and utterly unexpected.
All good things must come to an end. The book club and I eventually parted ways. The problem was, ironically, a kind of gender-based disagreement. The majority of the group (sorry, guys) were beer aficionados, hence the meetings at brew pubs. One of them had actually written two books about beer and the brewing business. They talked about colour, hops and malt. They talked about lager vs ale. Rice vs barley. Belgian vs German. They sampled tastings. They evaluated the proper serving temperature.
They annoyed the hell out of me.
They also found a new affection for science fiction — a genre I loved as a teenager but now find hard to take seriously — and they started choosing books I had little interest in.
And of course those were two characteristically male obsessions: beer and science fiction. Maybe I should’ve talked my way into that women’s group.
(To be clear, I love a lot of women writers: Jenny Offill, Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth Kolbert, Mary Roach, Alanna Mitchell, Natalie Angier and on and on…)