Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Book Clubs Have Become the Latest Way to Prove Your Intellectual Superiority. You Choose a Highbrow Book-And Then You Buy the Crib Notes on It So People Think You Actually Read It. (America)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Book Clubs Have Become the Latest Way to Prove Your Intellectual Superiority. You Choose a Highbrow Book-And Then You Buy the Crib Notes on It So People Think You Actually Read It. (America)

Article excerpt

I have news this week of an essential new yuppie credential. Ever since receiving David McCullough's 751-page biography of the US founding father John Adams as a Christmas present, the tome has lain unread on my coffee table. But I've lost count of the comments, from "That's an absolutely wonderful book" to "It's one of the best books I've ever read". The truth is that nobody in my household has yet got round to reading the book--and I doubt whether any of those visitors have, either. We're told even Boy George has included it among his holiday reading, but I somehow can't quite see him wading through those 751 pages.

But, just as corporate accountants fiddle the books, so literary pretence has now become an essential component of modern, middle-class America (I'm told its even beginning to gain something of a toehold in the UK). Here, practically every yuppie--particularly young mothers, for some reason--now belongs to a book club, whereby they are supposed to read books such as John Adams every month or so and then sit round in cosy circles, discussing the book and making valid intellectual points. The trouble is, though, that people simply will not find the time to do the actual reading. So they are resorting to commercial cribs of books so as to appear intellectually astute in their groups.

The phenomenon is also emerging with children's book groups. Generations of American students were brought up on CliffsNotes, a company that produces summarised, easily digestible crib sheets of classic literature--enough, the buyer hopes, to get the student through exams. Want to know what The Tempest is all about? For $14.95 you can buy all the basic ideas and theories on the internet. A spin-off from these, called SparkNotes, is even publishing a study guide for the first Harry Potter book. Book publishers have been quick to latch on to all this, too, obviating the need for any book club participants to think up topics for discussion themselves. Recently someone I know went to an author's lunch for The Price of Motherhood by Ann Crittenden. The publishers, an imprint of Henry Holt, helpfully spoonfed questions to be discussed in book clubs: "For female readers: if you and your husband earned exactly the same amount, but neither of you were allowed to work part time, would you feel comfortable becoming the wage-earner while your husband stayed home with the kids?" Facts and figures are also provided in capsulated form. …

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