I’m sitting in a living room with a group of 20-somethings and we’re talking about Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love.” The characters. The author’s oeuvre. How good this malbec is.It’s book club night in Los Angeles, and while the rest of the group looks relaxed as they sink into couches, I’m ready to bolt for the door.
It’s not that the writing seemed flat or that the protagonist was one-dimensional – it’s that, well, I hadn’t really read the book.
“What were your thoughts on Richard from Texas?” said the dude playing professor for the evening.
“Richard from Texas?” I thought to myself. “I don’t remember reading about any Richard from Texas in the Wikipedia entry.”
As far as I knew, the book was about a woman who gets a divorce, goes to Italy, gains weight, then goes to India and finds herself.
It’s the same anxiety I used to get in school when the teacher would call on us for answers – answers that would have popped up in my brain had I not been goofing around the night before playing Donkey Kong on Super Nintendo, nuking up Hot Pockets, keeping busy.
The modern-day book club has come to resemble a card game of BS, where the better you can bluff, the smarter you’ll feel.
Sure, we want to know about books, we want to say we’ve read books, we want to say things like, “the book was so much better than the movie,” or “I agree with what Michiko Kakutani said,” or “I heard the author on NPR,” – but actually read books – c’est pass .
If you’re like me, you probably have a big pile of books next to your bed you’ve been “meaning to read,” all dog-eared around page 11. Page 11 is like the symbol of reading these days – we can’t get past that page 11!
Yet here we are, still lying about reading books, feeling guilty about not finishing them, buying more books and repeat.
Pierre Bayard, French academic and author of the book, “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” argues that knowing about why certain books are important is more important than actually reading them. (I was going to buy his book and read it for this column but decided Mr. Bayard wouldn’t have wanted it so – you know, to prove his point.)
“It’s important to know how to read from the first line to the last line, but there are also other ways of reading,” he told The New York Times. “You can skim books, you can just have heard about them, you can have read them and forgotten them.”
I think what Bayard is trying to say is that like a “Magic Eye” book where you can merely stare at the page for a moment and all of a sudden see a 3-D rabbit, same goes for books. Just, like, look at them and you’ll get the point.
My problem is not an inability to read or a lack of wanting to read. Take Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love,” for example.
The truth is, I tried to read a few pages of her book, but since I had watched the movie preview, starring Julia Roberts, I had JR’s voice, her toothy grin and that loud cackle of a laugh in my head with every next line of dialogue.
I tried going back to the classics, but visions of Atticus Finch as Gregory Peck, Holly Golightly as Audrey Hepburn, James Bond as Pierce Brosnan (or Daniel Craig, if you like blonds) swam in my imagination.
My reading abilities have been usurped by A-list actors!
I now get why J.D. Salinger refused to sell the movie rights to his classic – he was probably worried Zac Efron would end up playing Holden Caulfield in Hollywood’s “The Catcher in the Rye (3D).”
Back to Richard from Texas: I pulled one of the dirtiest book club tricks ever, which I suggest using only in emergencies, which this very much was:
“What did I think of Richard? Oh, Richard said some powerful things that illuminated the overarching theme of self-understanding and acceptance” – whoa, where did I come up with that! – “but, um, what do you guys think about the memoir form? James Frey kind of ruined it for me.”
“Good point. Hmm, group, what do we think of memoir?”(pronounced mem-wah.)
Success! Thank God for the wrench in the machine that is James Frey.
Sure, he lied about drug addiction, fabricated crimes and played with reality as if it were putty between his fingers. But if you’re ever in a pinch, James Frey is, hands down, the best way to get any book club off-topic, whether you have read the book or not.
Thank God for the man who kept Oprah awake at night.