Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Clubs

We have a book club at my work and every once in a while I participate. I like the group and the selections are usually pretty good, but I am busy with school and work, and now this blog, so I rarely have time to get to the books with class in session. I still go to the meetings though. For the most part they run smoothly and we manage to agree on a book without much hassle. Last month we read Christopher Buckley's new book about the Supreme Court, Supreme Courtship - skip it. This month we are reading Against the Gods: Wendy's War - I'll say more about it in a future post.

The New York Times had an article about book clubs last week that a good friend passed along. I thought I would say a bit about it (NYT). The article discusses why people often have a hard time agreeing on what to read and also about the power structure of the clubs. This bit sums it up:
One member may push for John Updike, while everyone else is set on John Grisham. One person wants to have a glass of wine and talk about the book, while everyone else wants to get drunk and talk about their spouses. “There are all these power struggles about what book gets chosen,” Ms. Burg said. Then come the complaints: “It’s too long, it’s too short, it’s not literary enough, it’s too literary ... ”
The signaling effect is one reason book clubs often have trouble. Some people pick the right books in order to look smart and sophisticated even if they have no intention of reading the books. The goal here is to show that you are superior in some way, even if it is just your knowledge of 1960s Chilean authors.

This is also part of the reason people buy books without ever reading them. Some books just look good on the shelf and convey information. The most well known example of this is Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Supposedly something like 95% of the people that buy the book never read it. But it conveys information about taste that may be important in attracting others. The BBC reports on a new study about the signaling effect of books (BBC):
About four in 10 of the 1,500 said they had lied about what they had read to impress friends or potential partners - 46% of men and 33% of women.

Among teenagers, the figure rose to 74%, with most saying they would pretend to have read social networking pages or song lyrics.

One in five adults said they would read their chosen material whilst waiting for their date to arrive in the hope of making a good first impression.
A few thoughts. If you do participate in a book club with the intention of finding new authors or rediscovering old masters, make sure that your new friends don't all track the same sources you do. You want to use the group as an extension of your own book-finding algorithm. You may be very happy with a group that just reads Oprah's recommendations, but you can do that on your own and you must really value the social aspect to get much out of the club. If so, fine. But if not you should be wary of such groups.

Also be wary of groups that read the same authors. This was our 4th book by Buckley and many good recommendations (ahem, mine) were shot down. I recommended The Savage Detectives, among others, and despite wonderful reviews no one seemed too interested. That's a bad sign. You want your fellow members to have an openness to new books and new ideas. Hopefully they'll be the ones suggesting books that you've never heard of. Some of that happens in our work club, but we still have room for improvement.

At any rate, I'm off to dust off my copy of Hawking's book. I of course opted for his newer version, A Briefer History of Time, since his older version had too many pages and looked too hard.

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