Reading All About It

They take it so personally. When the members of Urban Pages, an interracial Cleveland book group, start discussing "The Heat Seekers" by Zane, they talk about the characters in the novel as though the fictional folks were in the next room. "That relationship is all about the booty call," says Crystal Maclin, a 32-year-old math teacher. "And what was up with that tongue business?" asks Sherry Coleman, a 44-year-old insurance analyst. So it goes for the rest of the evening at the suburban Borders where the group meets each month; the discussion mixes literature with confession, self-help and lots of laughs. "It's a good thing to talk about relationships and what they mean," says Quinn Randall, 43, one of the five men in the 16-member group. "A book club is really a sociological thing, and a good book looks at social issues. Tonight's a chance for people to talk about things that matter, all framed within the book. Besides," he adds with a grin, "I want to know what women want. This is great for me."

You say relationships don't do it for you. No matter. Whatever your taste in books, there's a club out there for you. In the past decade, book-club membership has exploded in this country. Oprah's Book Club (rest in peace) and her imitators at the morning TV shows and USA Today have been grabbing the headlines recently. But the real action, as almost any publisher, librarian or bookseller will tell you, is in the multitude of little groups, mostly female, who meet over wine and cheese to dissect books from "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" to Faulkner.

There are clubs for mothers and daughters, clubs for mothers and sons, and clubs that read only business books. There are sci-fi clubs, history clubs, gardening-book clubs, clubs for seniors and clubs that meet only online. In Jackson, Miss., they have the Sweet Potato Queens Eating and Reading Club, and at the federal prison in Rochester, Minn., there's the Federal Medical Center Book Club, whose membership has included televangelist Jim Bakker, perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche and Justin Volpe, the New York City police officer serving time for sodomizing a Haitian immigrant with a broomstick. There's even a club at the White House: the 1600 Penn Book Club meets monthly, and while there's nothing official about it, the 80-plus attendees do have the kind of clout it takes to get authors to show up for a personal grilling. Guests have included Richard Russo, Sandra Day O'Connor and Ken Burns. So far, neither Laura nor George W. Bush has attended.

When Rachel Jacobsohn published the first edition of "The Reading Group Handbook" in 1994, she estimated that 250,000 people belonged to book clubs. Today the Highland Park, Ill., founder of the Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders thinks 750,000 is a conservative estimate. Jacobsohn admits she's guessing, because nobody knows how many clubs or club members there are. At a time when it seems that everyone and everything can be statistically verified, book groups are a completely decentralized grass-roots phenome-non with no national organization and no membership lists. "These are pockets of people who don't belong to any registry," Jacobsohn says. "They're little secret communities. There's nothing wrong with it and everything good about it. No one has to answer to anyone else."

The one thing booksellers--and publishers--do know is that people in book clubs buy a lot of books. "Once a book gets picked by a few clubs," says Russell Perrault, publicity director at Vintage paperbacks, "word of mouth means that it will get picked again and again." So a novel like David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars" can have a sort of double existence, first as a hardcover best seller, and then a long and happy paperback life once it becomes a book-club favorite. But publishers have learned not to recommend titles to book groups. "Book-club people are prickly," says Katie Long, publicity director at Hyperion. "They like to come to their choices on their own."

That doesn't mean publishers don't bend over backward to accommodate book groups. Well before Oprah started her on-air club in 1996, publishers had started looking for ways to tap in to the book-club market. In 1994, literary agent Marly Rusoff, who was then running Doubleday's publicity department, wrote the first book-group guide, a companion to the Margaret Atwood novel "The Robber Bride." "It was already getting so expensive to send authors on tour," she recalls, "and here was a solution that would sustain bookstores and book groups and publishers." These days, every major publisher prints readers' guides, fills its Web site with discussion tips and author biographies and sets up conference calls between groups and authors. And across the country, book-group leaders have gone into business as facilitators who charge anywhere from $50 to $350 to run a two-hour book discussion.

So even though we've all heard the stories of book groups feuding and break-ing up, or the members who've resorted to Cliffs Notes to get through a meeting (one book-group veteran says she wants her tombstone to read: actually read the john adams biography), no one seriously disagrees with Pat Eiseman, Scribner's publicity director, when she says, "Book clubs are here to stay. There's only one thing better than reading, and that's talking about what you just read." Well, maybe one thing: she left out the tiaras, and Kathy Patrick's got plenty of those to go around.

Patrick operates Beauty and the Book in Jefferson, Texas, a combination bookstore and beauty parlor. "My big passions are hair and books," she explains. She is also the founder and director of the Pulpwood Queens of East Texas, a book club whose membership ranges from a core group of 30 to as high as 235. And everyone wears a tiara when they meet. "Tiaras are mandatory," Patrick says. "Good books are the rule." But don't sell her short. "We don't just chew gum and back-comb here," she wants you to know. She's started chapters of her club in seven cities so far, ranging as far as Minnesota and North Dakota, and she plans to have chapters in every state by the end of the year.

Already the Pulpwood Queens have had a national impact. Chosen by "Good Morning America" to select the first book on the morning show's televised book club, the Queens picked Ann Packer's debut novel, "The Dive From Clausen's Pier," and sent it straight up the best-seller list. Knopf, Packer's publisher, quickly jumped the novel's print run from 50,000 to 235,000 copies. "I want to find authors who haven't been heard of," says Patrick. But more than anything, Patrick and the Pulpwood Queens just want to have fun.

Without subtracting a smidgen of the uniqueness of the Pulpwood Queens, it does seem that these tiaraed enthusiasts epitomize--in a big way, of course--the joy that people find in coming together to talk about books. "We don't want to get so seriously caught up in literature that we can't have a good time," Patrick says. "They roll up the streets here at 5 o'clock, so when an author comes to town, it's a big deal. We all put our tiaras on and we just make it a big party." No, it's not your mother's book club, but the cause of literature never seemed in safer or more fun-loving hands.