THE BOOK-CLUB SNUB
By KATHERINE ROSMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 4, 2005
Alan and Arlene Alda couldn't make it, but other guests were prompt:
Michael Milken chatted with Ted Mitchell, the president of Occidental
College, while Fox News pundit Susan Estrich talked politics with
professor James Q. Wilson. The actor Michael York plucked an hors
d'oeuvre off a silver platter. What could have passed for a Hollywood
fund-raiser was actually... a monthly book-club meeting.
Hosted by California Secretary for Education Richard Riordan and his
wife, Nancy, the power group was hand-culled by Mr. Riordan. He rules it
autocratically, making the final decision on the title to be discussed
each month and mailing copies to participants. He maintains exclusivity
by following one simple principle: "Membership is closed."
Nearly every city has one: the book club you can't get into. Much like
clubs that screen members for social connections and Ivy League degrees,
they require applicant interviews, references and take pride in their
rejection rate. And now, the most elite of these groups are spawning a
wave of copycats. One new Manhattan group rejected nearly 200 applicants
last year. In Los Angeles, a group that started meeting in September has
already turned down two applicants it suspected of social climbing. "The
Reading Group" in Princeton, N.J., requires three letters of
recommendation before candidates can even get on the waiting list. (That
list now numbers six.)
And forget about wrangling a spot in The Aspen Institute's A-list
reading club that started meeting last month at the think tank's
Washington, D.C., headquarters. Between a clique of high-ranking Central
Intelligence Agency officials and British Ambassador to the U.S. Sir
David Manning, membership is all sewn up.
"I don't know if there is going to be room for me," said Walter
Isaacson, the Institute's chief executive, before membership was sealed.
(He got in, but two others not on the list crashed the first meeting
anyway; they were allowed to audit.)
The new rejection rate reflects an effort to stand apart and above at a
time when book groups are so popular -- and populist -- that they've got
books written about them. (One is "The Jane Austen Book Club," a
best-selling novel about a group that meets to discuss, yes, Jane Austen
novels.) But it also reflects a broader societal fascination with
rejecting, starting with the dozen-plus reality shows like "The
Apprentice" or "Project Runway," which exist largely to showcase
competitors getting booted out of a group.
Another factor is the sensitive role of status in society. In his new
book, "Status Anxiety," Alain de Botton argues that people are so
anxious about status these days, they're getting depressed. Harvard
Business School Professor Joel Podolny adds that for many consumers,
status relationships -- even more so than status symbols like big cars
and fancy jewelry -- are more key than ever in establishing rank in
society. "The real measure of status is who people turn down," says Mr.
Podolny, who has an upcoming book, "Status Signals," about status and
Ann Becker certainly knows what it feels like to get snubbed. An
executive recruiter and avid reader, Ms. Becker last year tried to get
into two San Francisco-area reading groups known for memberships heavy
with civic and business leaders. Neither club wanted her. "Poor Ann,"
says Susan McGuigan, the leader of one of the rejecting groups, who
explains the members want to keep their club small. Ms. Becker, a fan of
fat history books, has since formed her own group. "This is just like
dating," she says.
In New York, legal assistant Sarah Milks has a boldfaced posting on a
Web site called readerscircle.org that starts off: NOT ACCEPTING NEW
MEMBERS AT THIS TIME. Despite that warning, 200 new applications have
poured in over the past year, all but one of which were rejected. While
the young financial and artistic types who make up the group pride
themselves on their literary standards -- their reading list includes
William Faulkner and Aldous Huxley -- most of the applicants have been
"young girls who have just moved to the city," says Ms. Milks. "They're
like, 'Oh I love to read Candace Bushnell," a reference to the "Sex and
the City" author. "And I'm, like, 'no.' " The group has compiled a
15-person waiting list so that in the case of an unexpected opening, the
group has a qualified pool to choose from. Members read primarily
fiction, nominating books for consideration and then voting on the
selections on a private club Web site. In May, the members will travel
to Spain together, where they will discuss "Hopscotch," a novel about a
Argentinian bohemian. The author, Julio Cortazar, once owned the house
where the group will stay on the island of Majorca.
Facilitators who help readers put together new groups and rescue
troubled ones say that the emerging elitism shows up in materials
intended to guide groups and in the advice their clients ask. Sites like
bookbrowse.com now have sections on how to handle members who talk too
much, don't talk enough or focus too much on socializing. Sandy Brown of
the Chicago-based Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders, an
umbrella group of facilitators and readers, says compared with a few
years ago, she gets more inquiries about how to restrict membership.
"There's more and more refinement about who is getting to join groups,"
she says. Instead of simply trying to start a group, many of her clients
"are trying to reach into the right niche" of readers, she adds.
Last year, when business consultant Carol Cheng Mayer and two friends
were brainstorming about forming a reading group, their target readers
were women with business and cultural connections. After setting a
membership limit at 10 and extending invitations, the founders
wait-listed two people who asked to join early on. Two others were
turned down because the founders thought the applicants were social
climbers. "We're serious readers," says Jean Oh, a founder who works as
a marketer for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
As for the meeting places, the group settled on such high-profile spots
as Los Angeles's Hotel Bel-Air and the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna
Beach, where members will have the chance to get a prediscussion
massage. They read classic and contemporary fiction, such as Richard
Russo's "The Risk Pool," a novel about a father-son relationship. The
novel, which came out in 1988, was suggested by a member who works for
Tom Hanks's production outfit, Playtone Co. Mr. Hanks is scheduled to
produce a film adaptation of the book.
While there are no statistics on the growth of extra-selective book
clubs, there are a few indicators about the rise in readers groups in
general. Clubs registered with Book Passage, an independent store in
Corte Madera, Calif., now number nearly 200 -- double the figure just
three years ago. Readinggroupguides.com, a Web site that offers
discussion guides for 1,600 books, had 160,000 unique views in February,
60% more than the previous February. Oprah Winfrey, whose name is
synonymous with book clubs, now counts nearly 600,000 members in her
reader's group -- even though she's switched her focus from contemporary
fiction to classics.
The selective groups say they need to be picky about admitting new
members, because a mistake can disrupt fragile dynamics and because they
want the groups to be a manageable size. In launching its monthly
reading club, the Aspen Institute invited "friends" of the think tank --
people who had either attended the group's seminars or were donors. They
aimed to limit membership to 18 or 20, a number that they thought would
allow the best discussions.
But with its focus on leadership -- readings include the speeches of
Martin Luther King Jr. and Plato's "The Republic" -- the group generated
so much interest that Elliot Gerson, an executive vice president of the
institute, had to reject dozens of applicants. He is now considering
launching similar concepts in New York and Chicago. At 26 members, the
original group is "stretched to the limit," says Mr. Gerson.
The models for many of these groups have pedigrees that go back decades.
The Washington, D.C., group headed by Helene Safire, wife of New York
Times columnist William Safire, is nearly 25 years old and includes
novelist Kate Lehrer (wife of Jim Lehrer), Irene Pollin (co-owner with
her husband of the Washington Wizards basketball team) and poet Ruth
Boorstin (wife of the late Pulitzer Prize-winner, Daniel). Most of the
participants are original members, and their rules of admission are
straightforward and strict: "When Helene decides someone is great,
they're in," explains Ms. Lehrer.
The women, 18 in all, assemble on the first Tuesday of every month for a
pot-luck dinner and discussion at the Safire home. Each member brings a
dish, and the group decides jointly on the next assignment. Mostly they
read fiction, which they find easier to talk about. (Their first book
was "The World According to Garp.") Another steadfast rule: no political
discussion. The group's 20th anniversary was celebrated a few years ago
at a black-tie dinner held at The Phillips Collection, a museum.
(Husbands were invited.) "It was magnificent," Mrs. Safire says.
Back at the Riordans, it's a schmooze fest. Early in the evening, Mr.
Riordan hit Mr. Milken up for two donations -- one for tsunami victims
and the other to help fund a program at the University of California at
Berkeley, Mr. Milken's alma mater.
Mr. Riordan: "We could have the school's name and yours if you want. You
want to call it the Milken Program?"
Mr. Milken: "What about the Riordan Program?"
Mr. Riordan: "You need the notoriety from it more than I do."
After the dinner-discussion of Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America,"
(the book got a thumbs-up from the crowd) guests moved to the library to
sip port and brandy. Mr. Riordan stepped onto the balcony overlooking
his tennis court, pool and chapel and spoke (off the record) to a member
who is also a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Mitchell credited
Mr. Riordan for advancing his name to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to fill
a special education reform post. For Mr. Milken, it was his second
book-club meeting that month. The earlier meeting -- consisting of his
wife, their three children and their significant others -- was to
discuss "Money Mischief."
"The book was not as well received as I had hoped," he said.