Reading All about It: As the Talk Shows Rush in to Fill the Gap Left by Oprah, Book Groups Are Still Finding Plenty of Best Sellers on Their Own-Especially If Pink T Shirts and Tiaras Are Involved

Article excerpt

Byline: Malcolm Jones

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. …