A small group of men sat orderly within a small semi-circle,
sequestered in a corner of a large, expensive house. Pushed off to the
sidelines by their wine-drinking wives, they had attempted to plow into
yet another book club selection but were failing miserably. An official
afterthought, the husbands were hauled along to the semi-monthly book
club and declared associate members but were consistently banished to
various and remote regions when they had become too interested in
discussing the assigned book or by showing a lack of requisite passion
when the topics turned estrogenically bewildering. The chosen book lay
in their hands like heavy meals while they tried to digest the newest
selection; which had been dramatically presented to the group only two
weeks earlier by the technically literate book selection committee.
Hardbound and reluctant to give up its perceived secrets, this seven hundred page recap of all things banal deflected all honest attempts at understanding its contents. The men assumed any selection might possess insight with actual pluses and minuses, but experience was indicating that this book, as many of the other choices, was to be unreadable. It had been touted via the female word-of-mouth literary review system as a "must read" but no one ever scrutinized the methodology of how a book arrives on the preferred list. Some came from television talk shows, some came from other club's recommendation and some were instinctively (read frantically) pulled by that month's leader off the display at the local book store. Whether attracted by a shiny cover or creative in-store merchandising, the credibility of the selections never got in the way of the wine drinking. Evidentially the credo of the group revolved around the theory that when given a choice between potentially bad wine or bad books, you avoided the former and embraced the latter. You can always avoid the book but there wasn't a bottle of wine that made it through this book club without some damage.
“We are being too polite,” said the oldest man as he tossed his already-worn copy on the table. “This book is crap: derivative and dripping with the recency of today’s most media-astute, and I use this next term very liberally; writers.”
As it was thrown aside, no one at the wives’ table noticed his interpretative insubordination. The women were engrossed in some peculiar story involving their collective feelings, attitudes and perceptions while bottles of chardonnay were being anxiously uncorked. Each one was talking simultaneously and the collective obliviousness was complete. The men were being careful to determine if they had free reign to stage a literary mutiny on the grounds of potential literature-induced homicide but the anguish of the attempted read cast their collective fate.
“Well,” said the other, “It seems like it doesn’t want to be read.”
“True but the bigger problem is,” said the third, “that we are desperately lacking in testicular gravitas.”
“I agree with everyone but especially Tom,” said the fourth and final man while pointing his highlighter at the individual requesting any type of gravitas. “In fact, this book doesn’t want to be read but in truth, it shouldn’t be read. It is a waste of time, a waste of paper and our inability to stand up and embrace something worthwhile just adds to the sting.”
“What should we do?” said the first man.
“Do what all men of letters do,” said the second man, “Get the hell out of here and each get a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The men agreed. All four books were summarily thrown out of the window and into a known trash can directly under it. Once they had heard the satisfying sound of four direct hits into the bin, the four men left to go outside to settle on their next move. They waved at their wives, who waved back but did not slow or diminish their conversational din. They were free and decided to rethink their collective marching orders. They were under pressure to be reading these books and the first thing to go was the pace. The more vocal faction of the club felt that the more read the better and as a result, aggressive reading quotas were instituted but rarely enforced.
“Why are we rushing through these books?” asked Tom. "I don't mind reading quickly but I am tired of reading crappy books at the time. I would rather take the time to enjoy something worthwhile, something with substance."
"Because this is our book club,” said Vince. “I am the oldest and officially, until proved otherwise, the wisest. After the book is read, we will all free up a week for a road trip. Gravitas awaits us.”
No one asked why they were going on a trip as it wasn’t time to know that. The four men shook hands and went in to watch the ten o’clock news.
The next morning with his wife experiencing a particularly piercing hangover, the first man, Jerry Schuler, scrounged around his basement and eventually located a copy of the book. Required reading when he was a college freshman, he knew he had a marked-up paperback somewhere in his belongings. He spotted the yellow “USED” sticker on its binder in the dim basement and reached down into the back of a musty cardboard box and brought it out of the light. He sat down on the basement floor, oblivious to the musty environment and opened up the book. The scribblings and highlighted marker colors, from both himself and the book’s anonymous initial owner, brought back memories of undergraduate fun and learning how to pass a class with a minimum of effort. As he thumbed the pages, a vague recollection of the book was hauled out of the deep recesses of his hippocampus and he remembered how dull and ponderous the book appeared. But he respected Vince and thought it was certainly worth a second attempt.
Jerry picked himself up, went upstairs and made coffee. The house was quiet and he was excited to make another attempt at the book because this time he was not reading because he not vomiting up a minimal understanding of the plot summary and key metaphorical symbols for a mid-term; he was reading the book for the sheer love of time-tested literature. He opened it up and read the first paragraph and got goose bumps. The opening sentences were inspired; the depth of their construction were so good he was ashamed at wasting so much time by reading nothing but crap since college.
Harper Lee’s work was easily standing the test of time and the idea that it had lay dormant for twenty years in his basement (and twenty more years since its publication) made him think what other classic pieces of literature, both unread and to be re-read were in front of him. He kept reading all morning, his wife made an appearance for aspirin and then a dramatic return to bed with a horrific hangover. He continued to read and was surprised when he looked up and saw the time: he had read for four solid hours without stopping. The book had taken him away, to the depression-era south, and as he stared at the tattered book cover, he was in awe of his discovery. This book had legs.
When the four men reconvened two weeks later, all had similar epiphanies. The book had been technically re-discovered by all four and they were all equally ashamed at their lax approach to continuing education. Vince was the least surprised, as he remembered the book’s power as a young man, but he still was moved by the depth of the book’s content. All four men were anxious to discuss the characters, key scenes and Harper Lee’s motivation but Vince handed each one of them a short but deep glass of bourbon. Before they could get comfortable, Vince quieted the group and raised his glass towards the group and said, “To Monroeville, Alabama! Boys, we are Alabama-bound.”
The four clinked their glasses together on Vince's new three-season porch. They did not tell their wives of their literary mutiny and by the looks of their wives, they were successful with their subterfuge. The short-memory wives were cracking open new wine bottles and moving last meeting's books off to the side in case the book interfered with their wine drinking. The evening was cool with a pleasant breeze and each one of the cabal was anxious to discuss their feelings and findings. The others, Jim, Jim and Joe, were anxious to discuss the book and didn't feel that interested in discussing their last two weeks. The purpose of the club is to read and discuss books so that is what they did.
"The author paints a helluva picture, doesn't she? said the first Jim. "I could feel the heat, the claustrophobia and the pressures on a life that was quickly changing."
"I agree with Jim and want to add that I forgot how good this book was to read. I am ashamed that when I was supposed to read it, I quickly read the Cliff's Notes and didn't look back. I wish I could say that the prose came back to me, that it was remembered in some fashion but I can't. I got a "B" in American Literature but I don't remember one thing about the book.
"Not even the stupid names?" asked Vince.
"Not even the stupid names."
"As much as I like this book," said the second Jim. "It makes me wonder how much excellent literature I have passed by due to my ignorance."
The four men agreed: this was a wake-up call. Instead of acting like literary lemmings, quietly accepting the task of enduring crappy and poorly-written writing just because it was on a best-seller list or in the front of the book megatore, it was up to them to strike a blow for independent thinking and seek out classics to enjoy. The Mockingbird book was consumed in a few weeks and the four men were finally focused on something worthwhile. Now completely separate of the wives club, they took it upon themselves to seek out books to propose to the group to read. Scouring top literary lists on the Internet, looking at old books gathering dust in their homes, they would spend the last ten minutes of each club meeting teeing up new ideas.
The top one hundred best books of all time was a traditional start and beginning at the bottom, they would debate the merits of the books with clear conscious. The only two existing rules of the club were all decisions had to be unanimous and that the hosting house have bourbon. None of the four men were heavy drinkers but bourbon made them all feel smarter and more insightful. Bourbon was introduced at Vince's house during the Mockingbird book and it complimented the read so well that it was brought out for all books subsequent. Bourbon proved to be an acquired taste with its dark amber color and hot, sweet bite. When cut with water, it softened a bit, but still showed the boys sharp, slightly harsh finish. The taste wasn't the point; the point was literary men drank bourbon, and they were finally literary men.
Jerry was enjoying his social time for the first time in a very long time. Not compelled to rush through the books nor preoccupied with the next literary choice, he looked forward to the camaraderie, the discussion of things not mundane, debating various intents and passages with no hard agenda and the ever-growing love of timeless literature. Conversations not related to the book were minimal; the four wanted to discuss the author's intent, potential motivations, impact on self and society and why time has shown this book worth embrace. During "The Red Badge of Courage," the group went through the symbolism of Stephen Crane's book, an entire bottle of bourbon and a healthy discussion of the fog of war. Written in 1895, the group continued to be amazed at the ability of classic literature to not only capture the human condition but to have it work over a hundred years later.
"We have to keep doing this," said one of the Jims. "This is the only fun I have anymore." The four empty glasses clinked and the night was called.
The following week, Jerry Schuler was readying the porch for the meeting when his wife, Dixean, showed up at the door.
"What book is it this week?"
"'The Grapes of Wrath' by John Steinbeck," said Jerry. "This one will take about two months to go through."
"I have two questions: didn't Oprah endorse that book a few years ago and do you have enough bourbon?"
"Yes and I certainly hope so. I don't want to get so drunk that the boys can't make it home. When we were reading 'The Great Gatsby' and then 'Catcher in the Rye,' I was contemplating whether or not to dry out for awhile. Luckily they were both fast reads. However, I am becoming a bit worried about the eleven hundred pages of 'Atlas Shrugged' and if the Jims convince us on hitting Henry James as soon as possible, it could be a long summer. And we appreciate Oprah's temporary salute to the classics, but it made it difficult for all of us to find used paperback copies of the book. Her whim must have cleared out a million used copies which now likely are taking up space on basement bookshelves across the country."
Wishing she could change clubs and drink choices, Dixean walked away and wished him well. She would be listening and hoping for a chance to join in but to switch clubs would be viewed as gender-based heresy. Dixean loved literature and needed some motivation to continue to read things with some depth and substance. She noticed the word "gravitas" pop up more and more and after looking up its definition, she couldn't stop using it. Her club's book sources were the same as all the other book club sources: Oprah, word of mouth and Oprah. They would dutifully read the assigned books, come up with the same thoughts and one meeting would blend into another one. It was hard to demonstrate independent thinking when the script was followed by twenty million other women but to switch clubs would brand her as an outlier. She was going out that evening to a movie with a non-book club friend and let the budding literary adventurers to their own devices
The next morning, Dixean came into the den fully expecting to find it in shambles: liquor bottles, dirty dishes, cigar butts and general squalor but she was surprised to find four small clean glasses washed and ready to return to the kitchen, a notepad, a highlighter and the beat-up copy of The Grapes of Wrath. It appeared that they had a focused conversation among long-standing friends, timely lubricated with high-quality bourbon, and a shared love of reading wonderful works of true literature. As she gazed at the orderly evidence, one decision was automatically made for her: she had to get into this club...and fast.
Jerry woke up a few minutes later and waked into the den and quietly approached for a sleepy hug. "How was the chick flick?"
"It was two hours of escapism and silly fun," said Dixean. "It was a nice break from all that wine."
Jerry smiled because he saw the frustration in her eyes; she was spending her valuable free time by missing out on something she loved under the guise of doing something productive but her book club was just a pretense to drink too much and talk about themselves. While there was a place for that release, her real need was partially social but mainly self-growth. She had not appreciated great literature as a student and now, with the kids gone and discretionary time growing, she was not going to piss away the opportunity of real education again. Jerry knew she wanted in and she knew she wanted in; the only question left was who was going to say it first.
This one is just starting...and everyone loves a road trip
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