Saturday, March 05, 2005

Book Nazis

Friday’s Wall Street Journal contained a fascinating article about the growth of elite book clubs across the nation.

Nearly every city has one: the book club you can’t get into. Much like clubs that screen members for social connections and Ivy League degrees, they require applicant interviews, references and take pride in their rejection rate. And now, the most elect of these groups are spawning a wave of copycats.

With so many people trying to get into these clubs, the people who run them can impose pretty much any sort of rules they wish. It gets strange fast. One club has a paid moderator. Another has “no discussion of the book before dinner, but during dinner only discussion of the book.” Another club brags that it won’t admit any new members who “can’t say where they were when JFK was shot” (cute). Another club reads only non-Oprah-approved fiction of under 350 pages (sorry Tolstoy); to join this club – I shit you not – you must submit an essay. Another requires three letters of recommendation just to be put on the waiting list.

Obviously, these reading groups are about social status, not literature. One elite club in Washington, DC is headed by Helene Safire, wife of former New York Times columnist and comb-over king William Safire. Its members include Kate Lehrer (wife of Jim Lehrer) and Ruth Boorstin (wife of the late Daniel Boorstin); I suppose to join this club you must be able to say where you were when McKinley was shot. In California, Education Secretary Richard Riordan hosts a book club whose members include Michael York, Alan Alda and Michael Milken (count your silverware).

Still, you don't need to be famous to be a book nazi. Sarah Milks, a New York legal assistant has a book club which rejected about 200 new applicants last year. This club is particularly pretentious:

While the young financial and artistic types who make up the group pride themselves on their literary standards – their reading list includes William Faulkner and Aldous Huxley – most of the applicants have been “young girls who have just moved to the city,” says Ms. Milks. “They’re like, ‘Oh I love to read Candace Bushnell,” a reference to the “Sex and the City” author. “And I’m, like, no.”

Yes, those kind of girls would never understand “As I Lay, Like, Dying” or “Brave New, Like, World”

I find it amazing that people would put up with this sort of abuse. Especially over books. When I read a book all that counts is what I think of it. The opinion (let alone, approval) of Tom Brokaw’s wife or Basil Exposition means nothing to me. If the people in this Wall Street Journal article are book club snobs (a snob being someone who’s haughty to their inferiors and groveling to their superiors) then I and my friends are book aristocrats – confident, independent, interested in the opinions of other aristocrats, to be sure, but ultimately masters of our own judgment. We don’t do clubs.

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