There’s one major reason I could never belong to a book club (other than the geographical one – in my rural neighbourhood there are a lot of yogis, grey-haired surfers and various factions of horse-riders, but book clubs are thin on the ground). The reason is that I’m a snob.
I know I’m supposed to be ashamed of this. Thinking that things are objectively good or bad is enough to earn you a side-eye nowadays. The prevailing, accepted attitude for everything from wine (“snobs might turn their noses up at this vanilla-infused chardonnay/coffee-infused pinotage, but I think it is delicious!”) to TV (“shows on Discovery TLC might be really trashy, but I just can’t stop watching them!”) to food (“I’d much rather read this blog by this ordinary non-professional about how to cook than read a recipe book by an actual chef”) is that whatever your opinion is, is right. Everything should be accessible to everyone. There’s no such thing as “bad taste”, and experts are out. And when this attitude is applied to books, I just can’t.
It’s not that I only read highbrow literary fiction – I’ve never even read a single Tolstoy. And that’s not a brag – it’s something I’m really ashamed of, but not so ashamed that I’ll neglect the new Kate Atkinson in favour of Anna Karenina (that’s one, right?). I actually love lighthearted contemporary fiction (hold the vampires and elves). My Kindle’s got everything from NW by Zadie Smith on it to, honestly, The Rise and Fall of a Yummy Mummy by Polly Williams (not a bad way to spend R70, actually) – so I’m not a snob in the sense that I don’t like “trashy” fiction.
But here’s where the snobbery comes in – I am of the opinion that you can’t truly appreciate anything if you don’t know what to look for. And you certainly can’t engage in a meaningful discussion about a work of art, or fiction, or anything, if you don’t have any background knowledge of what makes that art work “good”. I mean, I can point at a pair of shoes and say, “wow, those are pretty!” (that’s probably more enthusiasm than I have ever expressed about shoes, to be fair), but I wouldn’t meet with a group of women for an hour every month to talk about how or why this or that pair of shoes is pretty, because I just don’t know anything about what goes into designing and making a pair of shoes.
When it comes to book clubs, the thing I’m most afraid of is the glib understatement. I imagine discussing a great work of fiction with my girl friends – OK, not my real girl friends, because they’re too much like me for even an imaginary book club to be credible, so I’m creating a hypothetical group of girl friends, who are all in, like, finance or something that doesn’t require a BA. Let’s say we’re talking about The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Booker Prize winner, Pulitzer nominee, complex allegory about colonialism in Africa told through the story of a doomed and damaged Southern family, riddled with imagery, infused with energy, heavy with tragedy, but reads like any narrative about a family in an untranslated land). These hypothetical girls dabble in books the way I dabble in shoes – I’m definitely not passionate about shoes, but I wear them and sometimes shop for them, and occasionally notice them on other people. One of the women opens her mouth to declare her opinion on the book, and I can tell she’s going to say something nice about it, and I imagine myself having a “you’re fucking kidding me” moment like I did on the Ponte Fabricio in Rome three years ago.
While driving over this age-old bridge, surrounded by iconic architecture, one of my travelling companions – a very sweet person who, to be fair, had never been on a plane before the trip – said, in a tone of mild surprise, “They’ve got nice buildings here, hey.”
Even though I have zero personal investment in Rome or its “buildings”, I was insulted by how offhand this person had been – which is completely ridiculous. Yes, this sweet, quaint person appreciated the architecture of Rome in their own way – but it didn’t mean I wanted to listen to them talk about their experience.
So can you imagine me in a book club if one of my hypothetical friends came out with, “Ja, I liked The Poisonwood Bible. It’s quite good.”?
Other reasons I think book clubs are silly:
- They are not about the books at all. They are about “having a girls’ night” and drinking wine. Why do people feel they need the excuse? Why don’t they just meet up with their mates and get tipsy on a weeknight for no reason other than that it’s rad?
- Even if they were about the books, book clubs emerged when hardcopies of books were expensive as a way to pool resources. Everyone has a Kindle now. So why even meet in person? If you want to talk about books you love, online forums are much more convenient. I’m a bit of a Goodreads troll myself.
- This is probably my biggest gripe – book clubs are almost exclusively female. Why? They’re like the Tupperware parties of the 20-teens. I avoid forced all-female gatherings at most costs these days because they just make me uncomfortable and they usually involve boring, twee things like tea and cupcakes. At least these “book clubs” usually involve wine, which is something I can definitely get behind.