Friends of the Eugene Public Library are hosting their annual book sale this weekend. Every treasure trove will attract pirates. A few years ago, they had to tighten their rules to prevent professionals from scouring tables for rare books, using hand-held scanners to quickly research resale values, then leaving a mess behind them.
Eugene loves its book groups almost as much as it loves its books — so much so that two recent local scandals used “book club” as their code to organize illicit gatherings.
A band of anarchists and sometime-arsonists used their “book club” to discuss ways to slow what they saw as society’s mindless march toward ecological disaster. And when three Lane County commissioners wanted to set aside time to plan and predetermine votes and other county business without being bothered by open meeting laws, their meetings were labeled “book club” on their calendars.
Both groups used “book club” as an innocuous guise concealing illicit intent, as if no subversion ever arose from discussing a book. It makes me wonder what people have been reading.
Or maybe reading is not the point. Just because we love books doesn’t mean we love reading. Personally, I hate reading. I’ve always been an atrociously slow reader. But I love having read.
I don’t like doing laundry either, but I do enjoy clean sheets. So I do the former to have the latter. It’s the same for me with reading — especially books.
I have many friends in book clubs. The most common complaint I hear is people attending who haven’t read the book.
So when I was invited to join a book club, I asked for a special proviso. Each member would be obligated to read the first hundred pages of the assigned tome. Anything beyond that was strictly between the reader and the author.
One hundred pages should give an author ample opportunity to get their readers hooked. Any failure to complete a book so thoroughly begun should be considered not the reader’s failing, but the author’s. Not every date will lead to marriage. Not every book begun should be finished.
We gave ourselves the freedom to stop if we could, still counting the book as one we’ve read.
We usually met at a restaurant every month or so. Discussing the book would sometimes begin our conversation, occasionally it would dominate our time. But we always found time for other convivialities: restaurants opening or closing, current events, some interesting tidbit we’d heard that morning on NPR.
After the first year, the group meetings became less enjoyable, at least for me. I understood from the start that each other member was married to a woman who loved books. When you love a woman who loves books, it makes good sense to learn to love books yourself. That was each of them. It wasn’t me.
I was recruited to join the group as a “wild card.” I didn’t move in the same social circles. I wasn’t a genuine book-lover. I was what they would call in another context a diversity hire.
As a thin, straight, white, middle-class American male with good credit, an iPhone and comfortable shoes, I know as many advantages in life as anyone who has ever lived. This group gave me what may have been my very first experience of being an oppressed minority. That may sound glib, but it’s not.
Whenever they agreed with me, I began to worry I was being patronized. When they followed my suggestion for a book to read, I wondered if there was an unspoken quota system. I became fearful they were talking about me behind my back between meetings, strategizing about how to cope with my disruptions of their otherwise comfortable consensus.
In other words, I wondered if there was a “book club” behind our book club.
We disbanded the group after a couple of years. I learned a lot from those guys, most of it not about reading or books. I miss them once in a while, the way I sometimes miss clean sheets. Then I pick up a book and do a load of laundry.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs