“It was terrifying,” Ginsberg said. “He’s the one historian we all hold in awe. You want to get it right. You want to make sure the quality of the conversation is up to his level of writing and investigation.” Caro stayed for three hours and was, Ginsberg said, “mesmerizing.” Carter, who came to discuss Lawrence Wright’s “13 Days in September,” did not stay as long, but wowed the group with his “incredible, almost minute-to-minute recall” of the 1978 meeting with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat.
Every age begets its era-specific book club. At the origins of the pastime — mid-18th-century England — women, shut out from most colleges and learned gatherings, opened their living rooms to male luminaries in an effort at intellectual autonomy. In the 1950s, the Great Books movement helped an economically robust postwar society flex its cultural and democratic muscles.
Inevitably, today’s book clubs mirror the everything-is-political ethos of our time: here is Martel and company discussing the AIDS-era memoir “Fairyland,” there is Ruhl discussing whether the well-made play is essentially a patriarchal structure. In an age in which public discourse has been sullied, and political lines have been drawn in the sand, it makes sense that people would want to bond with the like-minded.
“You know these meetings are a tryout.”
Cassandra Lam is the chief executive of The Cosmos, a community of self-identifying Asian-American women. A proud daughter of Vietnamese boat refugee parents, Lam said that many of the women in their 20s and 30s who are drawn to the group’s book club meetings grew up without seeing people who look like them in books or on TV.
Consequently, at the meetings, devoted to Asian-American diasporic literature written by women, “Some people don’t have much to say because it’s so emotional just to be there. It’s like how so many Asian people cried during ‘Crazy Rich Asians’: that’s not a sad movie, it’s simply that these people had never seen themselves before. In that moment you realize the boundaries of what’s possible have expanded.”
For Israel of Literaryswag, these expanded horizons imply responsibility: “You know these meetings are a tryout. The people at them are gonna be your collaborators, your co-conspirators, the people you start businesses and families with.”