So, I co-organize a book club. We’re a Meetup group, open to anyone. It was not our group originally; we inherited it from a friend when she moved out of town, and she had likewise inherited it from another person when that person moved away. But we work hard to keep it friendly, to keep people engaged and make sure everyone’s voice is heard in book selections, and keep the books we discuss to actually be discussion-worthy. Sometimes we fail on that point, but usually, even if not everyone likes the book, we can have a decent discussion. The way we choose books is as follows: People who attend the meeting make suggestions. Our criteria for books are that they be approximately 350 pages or less (though we’re not always hard and fast on that one), and that they either be out in paperback or at least less than $15 in hardcover on Amazon. This keeps them short enough for busy people to read in a month’s time and affordable enough that if you can’t get a copy at the library, buying a copy won’t break the bank. My co-organizer narrows the field to 5 books and puts them up in a poll on the Meetup site. We notify the entire Meetup. About 5% of the members vote. (We have over 300 members, of which I’d say 90% have never even been to one meeting, which is typical of Meetup groups, I find. We have maybe 10 real regulars, and by regulars I don’t even mean people who come every month; we have maybe 4 or 5 of those.) The book with the most votes as of the next meeting wins. If there’s a tie, we do one of 3 things: we have two groups the next time, each group reading one of the books, or the people at the previous meeting get to choose which one they’d prefer, or the co-organizers pick the one they’d prefer. It is a pretty fair way of deciding, I think, and we read an interesting selection of books. For reference, here’s the list of books we’ve read in the past year:
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: a nonfiction book about science and racism and medical ethics
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: A Man Booker Prize winner from a few years ago, a short novel about a middle-aged British man reflecting on his childhood and unraveling current and past mysteries (and discovering himself as he currently exists)
- Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami: a typical Murakami book, weird and disturbing and filled with magical realism, about sex and time travel and murder and beheading cats and alternate dimensions
- The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling: the Harry Potter author’s first novel for adults, all about how the death of a city councilman affects all of the deep dark hidden secrets of a tiny British village
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: a rather famous nonfiction book about how famously intelligent/inventive individuals get where they are and the factors that influence excellence in life and business
- The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux: a trio of novellas on the theme of foreigners’ interactions with natives in India, for the good and the bad (but mostly the bad)
- Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan: a novel from the famous author about a low-level British spy who falls in love with her mark and the complicated ethical line she walks and the fallout in their relationship when he finds out the truth
- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed: a nonfiction memoir about a young woman who decides to hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail (the wilder, longer, harder version of the more well-known Appalachian Trail) by herself, with practically no wilderness training/experience, in order to rediscover herself and heal from the wounds caused by her mother’s untimely death and her divorce from the man she loved
- A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: the first in a famous novel series that has been adapted for TV by HBO, establishing the characters and the world and the political intrigues in a medieval fantasy kind of setting
- The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom: a modern-day fable from a famous author about the value of time and not attaching too much importance to counting it
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs: a young adult novel that is part spooky, part fantastical about a teenager who discovers he is “peculiar” in the same way as his grandfather and that there are other peculiar people out there with their own talents – and the fate of the world may rest on all of their shoulders
- Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer: a book about space exploration and dying and alopecia and autism and young love and poverty and the suburbs and robots and generally just Being Different (and the book that inspired the incident that inspired this post)
I think that’s a pretty diverse group. I didn’t love them all, but I read a number of books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and discovered a couple that I liked a lot as a result. Which is why I was really pissed off this morning when I read a comment from a member on the site this morning that said, “Sigh. Another month, another chick book.” Um…WTF?! Here are the thoughts that went through my mind immediately:
- This book is NOT a chick book!
- Why does he think it’s a chick book? Has he read it? Or is he just assuming based on the cover or a description he read or the fact that it’s written by a woman and has a female protagonist?
- What the hell IS a chick book? Are there books that this guy presumes can only be enjoyed by women?
- Why is that a prevailing thought? Why do we have the somewhat derogatory term “chick lit” but there’s no male equivalent? Why can guys scoff at “chick lit” but ladies are expected to respect or even enjoy “dude lit” (for lack of a better term BECAUSE THERE IS NO EQUIVALENT TERM)?
- This guy has been a member of the Meetup group for a year and NEVER EVEN ATTENDED A MEETING of this group. Why does he think he gets to comment on our book selections?
Possibly more infuriating or baffling was the female member who replied to his post with a “And how!” comment. I am so puzzled. She only recently joined and hasn’t come to a meeting yet, so I guess I can give that a pass…
I’m still pissy about it. I wrote a reply asking him if he’d read the book and for his reasons why he called it a “chick book”, and I suggested he come to a meeting to suggest books and also be sure to vote on the poll every month if he wants to influence the selections. I also listed the last 3 months of books to demonstrate that even if he thinks this is a “chick book” for some reason, we certainly don’t choose one like it every time.
I really shouldn’t be wasting this much energy on this, I guess, but since he posted his comment publicly, I don’t want it to influence potential members who are perusing the site or to discourage current members who just didn’t get a chance to read this book this month from ever reading it (particularly because it’s a book I really, really like). But I am really more pissed off at the societal construct I noted in #4 of my list above where something about/by/for women is somehow less than or easily dismissed. Why is a book written by a woman, written about a woman, enjoyed by women somehow not good enough for reading and discussion? Why is it any less important or less complex or less interesting than a book written by a man, about a man and/or enjoyed by men? I know the answer is that it’s NOT less important or less good, but why do so many people think that? Why do EVEN WOMEN act dismissive in that way?
What do you think? Am I overreacting? Do you have ALL THE THOUGHTS on this issue like I do? If so, please share!