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The First Rule of Book Club

Chicago versus New York: sure, we know whose pizza is better, but what about their city-wide book reading programs? A stern lecture about our relative civic hopes, fears, and lazy habits.

A friend of mine is in a book club. Every month, he and his wife meet with four other couples. They drink wine and the women chat, occasionally about the book, I presume, and the men disappear to the backyard and smoke cigars in the dark.

When he and I get together, usually at a Chicago restaurant, a bestseller will sometimes come up in conversation and I’ll ask if he’s read it. ‘I think my book club did,’ he’ll say, which means no. He attends only for the cigars, which he doesn’t like to smoke in his own house where he might second-hand his children into the twice-monthly care of an allergist. Cigars, incidentally, are also why he golfs, why he washes his own car, and why he volunteers to run out to the store for items the family could easily go another day without.

I bring this up because the city of New York is planning a book club of its own, inviting every person in the five boroughs to read and discuss Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. They stole this idea from Chicago, which successfully read To Kill a Mockingbird last year. Chicago pinched the idea from Seattle, that being the bullying hierarchy of urban cultural affairs.

From the start, Chicago’s attitude toward the book club was a lot like that of my friend: The city’s motivation had little to do with reading. Simply said, mid-level bureaucrats launched ‘One Book, One Chicago’ in order to kiss the Mayor’s ass, and he pounced on the opportunity to tell anyone with a microphone that his favorite book was To Kill a Mockingbird. At schools and libraries across the city, Mayor Daley’s admiration for literature’s most principled lawyer and father, Atticus Finch, seemed so heartfelt that one wondered why he hadn’t talked his wife Maggie into naming two in their own brood ‘Scout’ and ‘Dill.’

‘There’s a strong message there, not just for the city but for the country and the world—a message about racial, religious, ethnic, or class prejudice,’ Daley said, shrewdly hedging against his hazy, high school memory of the novel’s themes by separating them with an ‘or’ instead of an ‘and.’ In time, he became so closely associated with it that the newspapers began referring to the whole deal as ‘The Mayor’s Book Club.’

New York can’t possibly be in the book club business for the same reason, however, because in the Big Delicious they don’t need to suck up to the mayor. As I understand it, they hold elections every four years, and elect a new mayor at least every eight. That’s very different from Chicago, where we elect a mayor every 35 years or so. When we find a mayor we like well enough, the city’s by-laws state that his or her term shall end with a fatal heart attack, followed by a period of relative anarchy that lasts until the state chairman of the Democratic Party chooses a new mayor, usually himself.

Regardless, a Chicago-style-sucking-up-to-city-hall club wouldn’t work in New York because Michael Bloomberg is on record that his favorite book is Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a 1,200-page backpack buster that Bloomberg no doubt favors because he can climb on top of it and dangle his feet over the side.

So why are New Yorkers going through all the bother? I’m not sure, but I haven’t ruled out cigars as a motive. If cigar aficionados can launch a magazine with nothing but the promise of alternating cover stories on Jim Belushi and Danny DeVito, I find it plausible that they could be the conspirators behind any number of nefarious plots. In my neighborhood, a cigar store has remained open for almost six years without street-side evidence of a single customer. I tell you they’re up to something.

Whatever the reasons, however, the folks in charge have made a fundamental error with the selection of Native Speaker, a choice that exposes their complete ignorance of the book club concept. Not to rub it in, but other cities seem to have grasped the idea with no problem. Los Angeles is reading Fahrenheit 451. San Francisco’s lined up The Grapes of Wrath. Cleveland, Colorado Springs, and Valparaiso, Indiana, will all be reading Mockingbird.

So I have a little advice for New Yorkers and I hope they listen because it’s critically important: In order for a city-wide reading group to work, you must choose a book that everyone’s already read. It also helps if the book has been made into a movie, so the local film critics, art theaters, and better-looking singles can get in on the action.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m sure Native Speaker is a fine read, and people who have heard of Chang-Rae Lee tell me he’s an excellent writer. But Manhattan is not a junior high. Its residents have jobs and children and TiVo and the one thing we were all promised about adulthood is that there wouldn’t be any more homework. Also, it goes without saying that the sight of everyone on the subway burrowing into the same paperback could be rationale for the retaking of Pelham 1-2-3. Some of us, of course, would like to connect occasionally with other intelligent people and talk about books but, I’ll say it again, books we’ve already read.

I hope this doesn’t discourage New Yorkers, but there’s no getting around the fact that if they stay the course, their book club will flop bigger than Stephen King’s Carrie on Broadway, only without the lasting camp value or the duets about menstruation.

If they insist on being different they can always read a play. Death of a Salesman or Our Town, either one is good.