Not Your Mom's Book Club

Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time" can be accurately described as plethoric Proust. The approximately 3,000-page, 12-novel cycle spends hundreds of pages on numbing cocktail chatter. It's just the kind of sweeping, indulgent work you'd assume young Americans would jab sticks in their eyes before reading. But in Los Angeles, home to the Botox lunch break, 10 hip, highly educated professionals, from 26 to 35, have spent the last year reading Powell's crowning achievement (a book a month, natch). In mid-February, the whole thing culminated in a "Dance" dinner party as overwrought as the book itself, with everyone dressing up as his favorite character. "Powell has these very convoluted physical descriptions," Richard Rushfield said a couple of hours before the party. "I'm trying to figure out how to wear a tropical suit and a cape."

Three-thousand-page novels? Earnest costume parties? What gives? From those Powell freaks to "low brau" clubs that celebrate truly horrible writing (Iceberg Slim's "Pimp: The Story of My Life" was one selection), more and more type-A Gen-Xers are shoehorning in a night a month to talk about reading. With people marrying later, and schedules becoming more and more hectic, book clubs are appealing to people who want a connection that isn't about dating (or at least isn't about singles bars) or money or jobs or working out.

That's good news for the publishing industry; young people have traditionally been at the bottom of the book-buying public. Pauline Huburt, who runs Book Movement, an online resource for book clubs, said the most recent survey (in 2000) showed there were about 5 million Americans active in book clubs. Surprisingly, 18- to 34-year-olds composed the second largest age group. "This generation is settling down later," Huburt says. "Book clubs are a way to keep in touch."

Never mind that the books themselves aren't necessarily that important. "I probably haven't read our book for the last six months," says Lorri Elder, a 28-year-old who works for Rep. Joe Hoeffel in D.C. "But my club is the one permanent thing in my life." Francette Kelley moved to Los Angeles after college; her book club is one of the few places where she believes people aren't jockeying for position. "It's hard to make female friends here, because everyone's so competitive," says Kelley, who works in TV development.

And book clubs are more satisfying than grabbing an after-work cocktail in a crowded bar. "People are very committed, time wise, so you want to make time to do things that touch your life," says Eric Boone, a 29-year-old Brooklynite who met his wife in the book club he's been in for six years. "This calms things down. It forces me to read. It forces me to take time out."

An informal survey found that women join book clubs in much greater numbers than men, and are more likely to use the monthly sessions to talk about their love lives, or their jobs or their families. "It's sort of like a therapy-session gossip thing," says Kelley. "It's not like we have Tupperware parties." Men, literal-minded simpletons that they are, seem to be more likely to actually read and discuss the book at hand.

Of course, this isn't a generation known for its long attention spans. Fittingly, some clubs aren't about books at all. Daniel Radosh decided the whole reading thing wasn't going to work for him, so he started a music club instead. "I wanted a shared experience where I could get together and talk about something cultural," he says. His club has held meetings on whether cover songs are better than the originals, and, of course, songs where the artist shares a first or last name with the last name of an American president. (Think June Carter or McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters.) The club's been such a success, Radosh wants to tell other people how to start their own. So what's he going to do? Write a book, of course.

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