Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Men's Book Groups?

Women have been doing book groups for twenty years or so, so why haven't men done the same? Seems some have been, and now they are doing it deeper, not just hanging out, but discussing real issues. Id' totally be down with that if I could find a group of good men to form a group.

Where the guys are

They're at their book group. Discussing books. Or are they?

By Don Aucoin Globe Staff / June 2, 2009\

For much of its 16 years, Ned Pride's book group was little more than a handy pretext for an evening of locker-room-style banter among buddies. But lately that has changed.


"We used to just sit around and drink beer and read Charles Bukowski, nothing great," says Pride, 51, of Quincy. "But the other night we were talking about evil. Drinking our red wine and talking about evil. We're moving into a deeper dimension. We don't want to read junk."

The idea of a bunch of guys sitting around a living room, or in a restaurant or bar, and not talking only about the Sox or their sex lives or their mortgages, but also ruminating on something as abstract as evil while sipping Cabernet, might be hard to imagine. But women aren't the only ones getting all Oprah-ish these days. Men's book groups are coming of age, digging deeper and acquiring a seriousness of purpose commensurate with these serious times. As their members navigate complicated life passages during a period of economic upheaval to which few see an early end, men's book groups increasingly serve as a safe harbor of fellowship and solidarity - as they long have for women.

"Traditionally, it's difficult to get men together unless it has something to do with poker or NASCAR or Hooters clubs," says Douglas Lord, who writes the "Books for Dudes" column for a newsletter published by the Library Journal. "But these book groups grow by word of mouth, guys pulling other guys in that they know. And then it develops into a sort of fellowship, where you're talking about all kinds of stuff, but you're really talking about life. You're relating to another person, and you're trying to grow your skills of empathy. You're trying to become a man."

That sounds heavy, but it also should be noted that, as with women, membership in a men's book group does not necessarily involve, you know, reading. "We've been meeting for six months, and we haven't read a book yet," says Andrew Upton, 45, of Somerville, describing his own book group. "We have such a good time talking about life, kids, work, politics, everything. And everyone is so busy. We may read a book at some point, but right now it's just a social club."

Even so, all that convivial talk can sometimes serve a deeper mission. When a member of Sherman Geller's Plymouth-based book group had a stroke, the other members made sure to visit him to buck him up. When Bob Charest of Arlington became a first-time father a year ago at age 60, he joined a dads-only book group in search of guys who shared a common bond. When a couple of members of Pride's book group lost their jobs, the other members sent a message that "there's some support here, that somebody else has been through it, that I know you're going through a hard time," according to Paul Hodlin, a member of the group.

"A lot of the interest is not about the books but about the lives we're leading," Hodlin says. "If we meet for two hours, the book sometimes doesn't take more than 15 minutes or a half-hour. The rest is life." Agrees Pride: "We've been meeting so long that we know everything about each other: the issues of marriage, divorce, kids, kids having kids, kids going to college or not."

At a time when men account for nearly 80 percent of the 5.7 million Americans who have lost their jobs in the current recession, and few jobs seem secure, book groups allow men not just to vent about the economy but also to quietly explore employment opportunities. "There is some networking that takes place in our group," Hodlin says. On smaller matters as well, book groups can serve as a font of lived experience and informed opinion: If a member is trying to choose between a public or private school for his child, there is likely to be no dearth of input from fellow members.

Current events, marriage, family, kids, sports: Little is off-limits in your average men's book group. Some groups develop their own idiosyncratic customs. Pride's group, which includes among its members Andrew Maloney and John Martland, opens each meeting with a fusillade of jokes ("Most of them are directed toward me," Pride says), and they adhere strictly to "the page 69 rule."

"There has to be something pretty sick going on on page 69 for us to read the book," says Pride. "Either a sexual encounter or some crazy situation. You can count on it with [John] Updike or [Tom] Wolfe, guys like that."

The fathers-only book group that Charest joined seldom talks explicitly about fatherhood. Yet Charest, who was alarmed by how little he read in the months after he and his wife adopted a baby girl from China, draws reassurance from the simple fact that the other fathers in his book group still value the life of the mind. "They have this very important responsibility, that takes time and effort, and life still goes on," he says. "You're essentially the same person."

There are other men's book groups that form around shared affinities less direct than fatherhood, perhaps, but still resonant. Geller, a 57-year-old optometrist, says most members of his group are physicians or attorneys whose work schedules are demanding and whose politics are "pretty much liberal or left-leaning." With the arrival of a liberal Democrat in the White House after eight years of a conservative Republican president, the talk has been upbeat lately.

"Oftentimes, our book club is just an excuse for getting together," Geller says. "It often goes into a political tangent, and then someone always tries to say, 'How does this relate to the book?' " Some of the books they have recently read ("The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan, "Dreams From My Father" by Barack Obama) reflect progressive politics. "I don't think we're looking for books that challenge our beliefs," admits Geller.

A tight bond of loyalty has grown among the men. Other guys have asked to join but have been refused, because the group wants to cap it at 10 members. The member who had the stroke initially had a somewhat confrontational manner during the meetings, according to Geller. But they learned over time that was just his style, and he wanted to provoke discussion. "Everybody really cares about each other," Geller says.

As men's book clubs have matured, they have grown more venturesome with the books they read, more resistant to pigeonholing. Sure, the group Pride and Hodlin belong to has read some of the books you might expect - David McCullough's "Truman," Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," Erik Larson's "Thunderstruck" - but also some you might not: Susan Vreeland's "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," Ann Patchett's "Bel Canto." Next up is a novel by Jodie Picoult. Novelist Anita Shreve is the sister-in-law of one member, according to Hodlin, and she recently signed copies of her books for the group.

So why form a men-only book club?

"We wanted an excuse to get together, as guys," says Pride. "Men don't typically get together in groups, because to be a man is to be kind of on your own. So I think it's good to bring together a bunch of guys." Besides, a men-only group allows members to speak in their native idiom. "Generally, guys are supportive in the way guys are supportive, which is usually by insulting each other," says Hodlin.

All right, but why form a book group rather than, say, a poker group? Because, Pride says, book groups offer the best of both worlds.

"I get a night out," he says. "I get to hang out with a few of my buddies whom I normally wouldn't see. I get to have a few laughs and talk about everything. Plus it forces me to read a book a month, which is something I don't know if I'd do."

Don Aucoin can be reached at Aucoin@globe.com.

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