Book Club Agony

When Judy Gruen's friend Eden invited her to join a book club, she was thrilled. But she soon learned, before joining a book club, first page through its reading list!

Illustration by Brian Sanchez
Illustration by Brian Sanchez

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When my friend Eden invited me to join her book club, I was thrilled. After all, securing a slot in a desirable book club had become as competitive as gaining acceptance to Harvard. Now, the next time my neighbor invited me to watch American Idol with her, I would sigh, “I wish I could, but I must polish off the last 300 pages of The Rise and Fall of Western Civilization for my book club meeting tonight.”

I got cracking right away on the group’s current selection, a bestselling novel that critics had hailed as “a work of extraordinary genius.” But I was in trouble by page three. This was a baleful tale of unceasing misery inflicted upon a gentle soul named Geet, who had the bum luck to be born into a corruption-plagued Third World country where every possible hell was visited upon him by evil government authorities, street thugs, and assorted scoundrels.

But Geet did not suffer alone. With 543 pages of purgatory still ahead, I shared his torment: Geet’s pneumonia on page 36; the theft of his meager possessions on page 98; his best friend’s death on page 255. I dared not imagine the horrors of page 456. I wondered: Was this any way to spend my precious reading time?

I expected the other members to hate the book as much as I did. I was wrong. “I thought the writing was exquisite,” the hostess opined. “It reminds us all of the banality of evil.”

“I agree,” nodded another bookworm. “When Geet had his only remaining foot cut off by the oncoming train, it was obviously a metaphor for the abuses of unchecked governmental power.”

Bewildered by this praise, I worried that I was not smart enough to appreciate a literary work this depressing. When I declared that I thought the book should be required reading for all prison inmates, because it was the worst punishment I could think of, the group was silent. Good, maybe they’ll kick me out! I hoped. However, perhaps in the spirit of diversity, they kept me on as the token non-intellectual.

The next day I listed the book for sale online. It sold within five minutes. The few dollars hardly compensated for my reading agony, but at least the miasma was out of the house. Our next book was less depressing, yet boasted the wildly popular themes of severe family dysfunction and kaballah. Hoping the club would lighten up, I thoughtfully brought the humor books that I was quite fond of to the next meeting as suggested reading. They ignored me again, as one might ignore someone who had accidentally made an embarrassing sound.

I stayed in the club only long enough to get my turn to pick a book and lead the discussion, after which I happily resigned. And I never thought I’d miss the tyranny of the book club—until I read the classic Nicholas and Alexandra. Then I wished I had a group of folks with whom I could strike up conversations that began, “Isn’t it fascinating to consider how Russian history might have turned out so differently if only the Tsar’s son had not been a hemophiliac?” After all, one does not want to sound like a snob. However, I oppressed my husband with my knowledge of the Bolsheviks, Archduke Ferdinand, and Russian supply lines until he begged for mercy.

Reconsidering, I would join another book club, but only if, like the Tsar, I could dictate everyone’s reading material, every month. I might not attract many recruits this way, but I can dangle this tantalizing offer: New York Times bestsellers with misery index of 30 percent or more will not be considered.

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  1. I’m with you, Lauren. I’m in a pretty good book club that is even willing to read a mystery story now and then. But I have to admit that Harry Potter has it all over the usual choices. I think I’ll take your advice. At 80, I should have plenty of time to re-read that lovely boy, followed by The Hunger Games, The Game of Thrones, you get the picture. Life’s too short to spend any time at all in literary agony.

  2. My friend and I started a book club to read through all of Jane Austen’s books. That was four and a half years ago. We have since read through nearly 40 books together – mostly classics with a few contemporary novels mixed in. And my friend and I pick just about all the books. And people read them! I hope you find an enjoyable environment for book discussion.

  3. I related to this article. Each bookclub I considered was reading dark, ponderous novels, which struck me as pretentiously dreary, and long test reads revealed little literary weight – these books seemed depressing for the sake of being depressing and appearing “artsy”.

    I’ve finally settled on re-reading Harry Potter and wish I could find a group of adults to discuss that.

  4. I believe “Laughter is the Best Medicine”. If you are going to read something that depresses you so much, you should balance it with large doses of humor or a show that makes you laugh. I use this as a gauge. If I watch a show by myself and it makes me laugh, it is funny. It’s a lot easier to laugh in a theater full of people who are laughing. The real test is what happens when you are alone.


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