Some book clubs are very well organized. They have regularly scheduled meetings, choose a year’s worth of books at a time (sometimes according to a clever theme) , and assign a leader to every discussion. That is not how my book club operates. We meet every six weeks or so, and the date is chosen via email poll. We don’t like to choose our books too far ahead, because who knows what terrific book we will all want to read six months from now?
This year, I volunteered to serve as the secretary of our book club. (Or was I drafted? I can’t recall.) My performance has not been up to par, even by our book club’s relatively low standards. In fact, I neglected my duties so badly that one of our members seized control and organized our annual Christmas book swap. Because she is a very nice person, she did this in a kind and tactful way, sending me the following emails:
Email #1: Are we having a book exchange in December or did that get past us all? Just wanted to make sure I did not miss anything.
Email #2: Do you want me to send an email to the group and see if we could get an impromptu group together the week of the 10th? I am happy to work on that if you think that is fun.
I gratefully accepted the offer, and last week 12 of us gathered for our favorite book club tradition — the holiday book exchange, also known as book thievery. I know many other book club organize similar exchanges over the holidays, but I wonder if our club takes ours just a little more seriously. The element of thievery certainly adds to the drama (and the fun). One of our members is the self-appointed referee and makes sure that the “official” rules are followed.
Each member brings a wrapped book. It can be any book (hardcover or paperback) — a novel, biography, cookbook, or even a beautiful coffee table book. Once someone brought what was once euphemistically called a “marriage manual” — I’m told that book is still in the back of another member’s closet, waiting for the right opportunity to reappear. Sometimes there are add-on items — an adorable Santa carrying a stack of books was very popular one year. Everyone takes a number (this year from 1 to 12), and #1 is the first to choose. #2 then can decide whether to choose another wrapped book or “steal” from #1 . . . and so on, up to #12, who has the final pick. I think this type of gift exchange is called a “Yankee swap”. Our group is very fond of stealing, and our referee has to enforce rules about the number of times a book can be stolen. One of our members spoke for all of us when she said:
The book exchange is definitely a highlight because I always find it interesting to see what books people choose to bring and what is the “hot” book/gift each year. The stealing and maneuvering always makes me laugh! I also like seeing the different iterations that turn up — magazines, book related gifts, and book/gift combos!
This year, we had a terrific selection of books to steal — I think the only thing they have in common is that they were all published in 2013:
- The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt) — Two members brought copies, and both were repeatedly stolen.
- Wave (Sonali Deraniyagala) — Just named one of the 10 best books of the year by the New York Times.
- Dog Songs (Mary Oliver) and Dog Shaming (Pascale Lemire)
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
- The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout)
- The Last First Day (Carrie Brown)
- A Literary Christmas: An Anthology
- Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist (Tim Federle) — I stole this one and I’m happy I did — Romeo and Julep, anyone?
- This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett) — My contribution!
- The Conquest of Everest (George Lowe)
- Subscription to Vanity Fair — Creatively packaged in a wine bag.
Not only did everyone go home with a new book, we agreed on our next three book club selections. We are all anxious to read The Goldfinch — any book that’s received such extraordinary acclaim is a perfect choice for us. Several of our members have read Sutton by J.R. Moehringer, and thought our husbands would enjoy it as well — so that’s what we will read for our couples’ get-together in February. And we are looking forward to discussing Alice McDermott’s Someone, the quiet and lovely story of an “ordinary” woman examining her life.
Our book club has been meeting (and stealing) since 1993. I asked our members to share their favorite memories of the past 20 years:
- The evening when a husband and wife reviewed (together) The Great Gatsby — everyone came dressed in 1920s attire. He had read the book 59 times and was a Gatsby fanatic/expert!
- The contentious discussion of Atlas Shrugged; some of the most vociferous opinions were expressed by those who had not made their way through that very long book.
- The time when a member brought her sick infant to a meeting; as she said, “nothing comes between me and my book club!”
- The discussion of Into Thin Air that was interrupted when a member received a call that her house was on fire.
- The very thorough review of The Shipping News, a book that some members weren’t enthusiastic about at first but grew to appreciate.
- The couples’ discussion of E.L. Doctorow’s The March, complete with a Union table with a blue tablecloth and a Confederate table with a gray tablecloth.
- The field trip we took to Oak Park to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio, after reading Loving Frank.
We are looking forward to the next 20 years of reading, friendship, and theft!
For information on Yankee swaps: www.giftypedia.com/Yankee_Swap Of course, you can make (and enforce) your own rules!