Like most women, I cherish the company of other women and welcome the opportunity to bask in female affection or talk about mutual interests. But I have turned down invitations to be part of any women’s book club. A disturbing cultural phenomenon has swept the nation. On the face of it, it seems a sign of progress, an awakening of intellectual enlightenment and refinement. Women gather in living rooms to sip wine and discuss literature. What could be unhealthy or backward about that?
The truth is the women’s book club has too often become a self-justification society, a bastion of thought-control. Within the intimate enclosure of these gatherings, female supremacy is sometimes stroked and preened, like a spoiled Persian cat sitting on the lap of a spinster.
Most women who attend book clubs are perfectly innocent and mean no harm. They just want to escape the demands of home for a few hours and be with other women. They also often geuninely enjoy books. But today it is impossible for women to simply get together and drink tea or sew or share opinions on their own reading in casual conversation. They must be doing something important at the same time.
Still, the idea of the book club is not to awaken or arouse. The overwhelming majority of worthy books have been penned by men, but women authors are favored. The chosen books often tell women that they are emotionally astute or victims of male insensitivity or that their families would be much better off if they fulfilled all their fantasies. Books older than twenty years are rare. Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies, a typical example, is described at the website Reading Woman:
On November 25, 1960, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal were murdered by the Dominican Republic’s repressive Trujillo regime for their efforts to overthrow the hated dictator. Dubbed “the butterflies,” the three sisters have since become enshrined as mythic figures in the liberation of the Caribbean island. Fascinated by these larger-than-life Dominican heroes, Julia Alvarez undertook to learn more about the real Mirabal sisters. Her efforts resulted in this novel in which she imagines the sisters as ordinary women, who, once politicized, each in her own way, took extraordinary risks because integrity and the times required it. The reader sees that, their hero status notwithstanding, the risks these women took were not any easier for them than they would be for anyone. Indeed, Alvarez’s flesh-and-blood characters inspire us into believing we all might be capable of heroism.
The truth is no women in the history of the world have overthrown dictators. That takes the physical force and strategic thinking of men. But the real world is not significant in the realm of the women’s book club. What matters is what might be.
Here is how Reading Woman describes another selection, A Frozen Woman, by Annie Ernaux:
The unnamed narrator of A Frozen Woman finds herself living a life she never planned. In an effort to understand how she went from an adventure-loving, intelligent, ambitious girl to a constrained, often-bored, always-exhausted housewife, she puts every stage of her life under the microscope. The result is the anatomy of a seduction: one step at a time she surrenders her dreams in favor of a relationship with a man, willfully ignoring any signal that the promise of marriage could never match the reality. Once married, she tries to challenge convention but is repeatedly defeated by a confluence of social forces, finally ending up “a well-broken little horsey.” I can’t recommend this book highly enough. But beware: Annie Ernaux, with stunning clarity, dredges up and articulates much that many women prefer not to see. Read at your own risk.
Read at your own risk? The idea that living as the beneficiary of a man’s devotion and financial support is a form of oppression is intensely gratifying. It diverts the mind from the truth of male subordination.
Novels about the brutality of whites toward blacks are especial favorites on the book club circuit. Thus the popularity of the recent bestseller The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which tells the story of the treatment of black maids at the hands of callous white employers and of the efforts by one heroine (a writer of course) to expose their suffering. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin writes:
The two principal maid characters, the lovingly maternal Aibileen and the angry, scrappy Minny, leap off the page in all their warm, three-dimensional glory. Book groups armed with hankies will talk and talk about their quiet bravery and the outrageous insults dished out by their vain, racist employers.
And so they have. But not here. There will be no hankies at the Thinking Housewife Book Club. This is an entirely different sort of literary experience. In the weeks and months ahead, I will offer recommendations. Most of these works will not be fresh off the best seller charts. In fact many preceded best seller lists and are books that have been written about many times before. If I were in charge of one of those citywide read-a-thons that cajole citizens into collective reading of the same book, I would choose from this personal list. It will include varied selections from literature, history, psychology, theology, philosophy, cooking, etc. Everything but mysteries and sports books.
There are no benefits, unless you include the pleasure of joining with me in the love of all those things that have been said nowhere but in books.
Gail Aggen writes:
I am looking forward to your reading selections, and sincerely hope “The Shack” is not one of them. I didn’t know too much about book clubs until lately when I found out that a bunch of women from church have one. It seems they were thoroughly taken with that book and soon it became recommended reading at our bible study, as well. They gave me a copy and I just couldn’t get through it. It is supposed to be about a man’s spiritual and emotional healing, but I just couldn’t dig the Holy Trinity being portrayed as a huge, motherly black lady (God the Father), an Hispanic handyman, if I remember correctly (God the Son), and an Asian gardener-type woman (the Holy Spirit). God forgive me if I am beginning to think like a Pharisee, because I really fear missing out on something new that God wants to share with us, but this kind of stuff makes me really uneasy. And more so, knowing that these well-meaning, Catholic ladies, who really want a true relationship with our Lord, feel this kind of writing is dead-on as spiritual truth. Do you know the book I am talking about, and if so, what did you think of it? I will consider the proposition that I may be off-base here, and would like your opinion.
Rest assured The Shack will not be on my list. Here is an article exploring the controversy about the bestselling novel by William P. Young. It has been called “undiluted heresy” by one prominent Christian. It appears to fit into the thrill-seeking ethic of book clubs. How comfortable is it in these gatherings to raise strong objections about a book? Getting into a heat ruins the social purpose of the get-togethers and yet to just sit quietly while something truly awful is exalted is wrong too.