America - Andrew Stephen finds the latest American craze
Book clubs have become the latest way to prove your intellectual superiority. You choose a highbrow
I have news this week of an essential new yuppie credential. Ever since receiving David McCullough's 751-page biography of the US founding father John Adams as a Christmas present, the tome has lain unread on my coffee table. But I've lost count of the comments, from "That's an absolutely wonderful book" to "It's one of the best books I've ever read". The truth is that nobody in my household has yet got round to reading the book - and I doubt whether any of those visitors have, either. We're told even Boy George has included it among his holiday reading, but I somehow can't quite see him wading through those 751 pages.
But, just as corporate accountants fiddle the books, so literary pretence has now become an essential component of modern, middle-class America (I'm told it's even beginning to gain something of a toehold in the UK). Here, practically every yuppie - particularly young mothers, for some reason - now belongs to a book club, whereby they are supposed to read books such as John Adams every month or so and then sit round in cosy circles, discussing the book and making valid intellectual points. The trouble is, though, that people simply will not find the time to do the actual reading. So they are resorting to commercial cribs of books so as to appear intellectually astute in their groups.
The phenomenon is also emerging with children's book groups. Generations of American students were brought up on CliffsNotes, a company that produces summarised, easily digestible crib sheets of classic literature - enough, the buyer hopes, to get the student through exams. Want to know what The Tempest is all about? For $14.95 you can buy all the basic ideas and theories on the internet. A spin-off from these, called SparkNotes, is even publishing a study guide for the first Harry Potter book. Book publishers have been quick to latch on to all this, too, obviating the need for any book club participants to think up topics for discussion themselves. Recently someone I know went to an author's lunch for The Price of Motherhood by Ann Crittenden. The publishers, an imprint of Henry Holt, helpfully spoon-fed questions to be discussed in book clubs: "For female readers: if you and your husband earned exactly the same amount, but neither of you were allowed to work part time, would you feel comfortable becoming the wage-earner while your husband stayed home with the kids?" Facts and figures are also provided in capsulated form.
Bookshop owners say they encounter the same anxiety in front of their book clubs as students feel in front of their professors; the difference is that book clubs are supposed to be purely pleasurable. Instead, they turn into the ultimate peer competition, to see how successfully you can carry off your pretence of literary knowledge. The leading independent bookshop in DC, Politics and Prose, refuses on principle to stock CliffsNotes booklets - but still hands out, for example, a leaflet from Vintage Books entitled "The Reading Group Planner" ("The Best Paperbacks, Favorite Authors, Great Reading Group Guides").
This growing phenomenon says something, I think, about how packaged and commercialised Americans are becoming, even as individuals. The purchasing of SparkNotes about books coming up for discussion in clubs shows just how desperate yuppies are to be smoothly homogenised products of the society in which they live; they are not concerned about the actual experience of reading the book but only about their subsequent appearance of intellectual weight.
Reading ceases to be an essentially solitary activity in which the reader communes with the writer; it becomes, rather, another example (as with the corporate accountants) of cheating to preserve appearances.
The other role of book clubs is that they provide an opportunity to show off, and this again is where the crib sheets come in useful. There are, naturally, plenty of unpretentious book clubs that serve their purpose of group enjoyment and intellectual stimulation well. But, increasingly, the trend is in the other direction. If the CEOs of some of the biggest companies in the world cheat, then why should book club participants not do the same? It is the appearance of intellectual superiority that counts, after all, not the substance. Why devote a period of sustained concentration on reading a book when you can buy your way out?
Book clubs thus offer a way to show off and to show intellectual superiority over others. They are supposed to be fun. But in 2002, people themselves become commodities to be primed, primped and prepared to outdo each other - even during what are supposed to be relaxed evenings of intellectual give and take.
I have one vow for the rest of 2002: to read all of John Adams, all 751 pages of it.