How The Internet Got Stupid:  The Embarrassment of Readalongs & Making Poor Bookish Choices

A traditional book club

Let’s hear it for Miranda Mills, vlogger, blogger, freelance writer, editor, and avid reader. Miranda and her mum, Donna, host the  monthly Comfort Book Club at Miranda’s vlog.  They have discussed such charming books as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Sense and Sensibility, and Elizabeth von Arnim’s  Father. Their November pick is Gavin Plumley’s A Home for All Seasons. Of course their fans read along and leave comments and phone messages. And Miranda and Donna play some of the phone messages at the book club meeting and respond to them. 

What’s so unusual about this, you ask.  Well, it is a traditional book club, focusing on one book at a time, in a frantic world of splintered attention.  

The traditional book club isn’t enough for internet-frazzled souls who socialize desperately online (and I have done the same) and can barely keep up with Twitter, Discord, Instagram, and possibly Tik-Tok. It is easy to get caught up in a never-ending cycle of what I call “reading for other people.” The beloved, bossy leaders of blog readalongs go in for what I can only call an embarrassment of repetition.

AND NOW I SHALL ADOPT MY BORED VOICE. God, I dread the blog readalongs, whether they be 20 Books of Summer, Jane in July, Victober (love the name, though),  or even (gasp) Women in Translation.  Some excellent bloggers are among the organizers, but I avoid the readalong posts. In November, the main events are Novellas in November and Non-fiction November. 

The lead bloggers urge, remind, slave-drive, and brainwash their followers into repeating the same task year after year. God help the bloggers and vloggers who take this literally. Last year, one vlogger looked about to cry as he talked about nonfiction “burn=out.”  I am sometimes exasperated by the failure to differentiate novellas from novels. No, The Great Gatsby IS NOT a novella!

It would be lovely to have a Dystopia in December event.  After all, Christmas comes only once a year.


There are moments when I wonder:  Why did I buy this book?  On a recent trip I was so ecstatic in all the bookstores that I could have spent all my time shopping.   I bought fewer books than usual, but I seem to have made worse choices. The good news: they all fit in my suitcase.

In the hotel room I started A. A. Milne’s adult novel, Mr. Pim, which I bought for the cover.. It was less well-written than I’d hoped, and not quite as funny as I’d expected, so I put it aside. It might do for the plane.

Anyway, I wasn’t a Milne fan, so what did I expect? I may be the only reader who in childhood disliked Milne’s Winnie-the Pooh.  Even at four, I felt too sophisticated for it. My dad got it out of the library, ignoring my wishes for The Bobbsey Twins or The Secret Garden.  Let me translate my four-year-old thoughts as he read the first chapter: “Really? This is what you like? Kanga and Roo are cute.” Then my mind wandered, and like the will o’ the wisp I was, I glided away while he sat reading to himself.

On the plane, I read 94 pages of Mr. Pim, which wasn’t easy,(1) because two young Czech? Hungarian? Irish? Appalachian? men talked loudly for seven hours in the seat behind me, and (2) a hapless, haunted-looking couple trying in vain to soothe a screaming baby for seven hours. I managed to read part of Ludwig Bemelmans’   To The One I Love the Best, a charming, comical memoir of Bemelmans’ friendship with Elsie de Wolfen, an eccentric decorator, in Los Angeles in the 1930s.

Anna Biller’s Bluebead’s Castle was also a mistake, but who am I to argue with the TLS review?  I loved the cover and thought it might be a literary excuse to read a Gothic novel. Maybe later.

I only bought nine or ten books, all of which fit in my suitcase. 

So it goes…

Call Him Cookie: When You Can’t Pronounce a Writer’s Name

This week, I received my second NYRB Classics Book Club selection.  The book club curator sends out a new book every month.  The subscriber does not choose the book.

I loved last month’s selection, The True History of of the first Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, by Diane Johnson, a biography of George Meredith’s first wife. (My review is here.)    I have qualms about this new book,  because it is by one of the Dreaded Soviet writers. Although I love 19th-century Russian fiction, the  prose of Soviet writers often seems turgid and clunky. They wrote under ghastly conditions, hence the uneven quality of the writing–or that’s my theory.

The August selection is Unwitting Street, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. A Kirkus Review blurb refers to the short stories in this collection as “tales.” I do hate a tale.  Unless it’s “Gogolesque.”

We shall see if I get along with Mr. KriZZZZZZhisanosssssky. I call him Krisky. Sounds like a cookie.

I do have another book by Cookie, Memories of the Future.  I read about half of the stories.  If I want to be an NYRB groupie, I must adjust to Soviet writing,

N.B.  I did admire one Soviet novel, Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, written in the late 1930s. You can read my review here.

The Book Club Goes Multicultural

“Oh, don’t give me that. I’m multicultural as hell,” I said crossly. “Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I have to subject myself to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

Liz, a well-meaning member of our informal book club, felt we should acknowledge Black Lives Matter, i.e, what used to be called Black Power.   The Twelve Tribes of Hattie had been on her shelf for years.  Unfortunately, I assured her, this best-seller is poorly written and devoid of style.  Anything but that!

“You really can skip The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” our friend Janet suggested tactfully. “Perhaps we could read a classic.  Ann Petry or Ralph Ellison?”

We agreed to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  And then we discussed multiculturalism. Does it mean race and ethnicity? Does it have to be about different cultures in the U.S.? What about the cultures of other nations? Does literature in translation count? French novels in French? African women’s novels?  Greek or Roman poetry in Greek and Latin? The Tale of Genji?

It’s a puzzle.

In my white neighborhood, quite a few white people have Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns. But a sign means nothing if they/we don’t get the vote out in November.  Should we join the Women’s League of Voters?

And let’s hope my book club can meet face-to-face again soon.  Zoom is not like being in the same room.  No wonder people have gone berserk and are racing around to bars and restaurants (hence spreading the virus). Please staay home.  Listen to Dr. Fauci!

By the way, I just read an excellent article at The New Yorker, “Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ as a Parable of Our Time.”

The Long-Distance Book Club: Our Picks of the Year

What, you may ask, is my favorite thing about the holidays?  It isn’t the banquets, it isn’t the presents, and it certainly isn’t the darkness.  Every December I diagnose myself with low-grade depression.  And so does everybody else I know. 

So it’s a good thing we have the long-distance book club.  We live in different towns, but we do try to get together once or twice a year.

This year we had a holiday meeting in central Iowa. Seven of us made it.  Pretty good.  We gossiped about our relatives’ bad behavior—why aren’t our Christmases like the ones in The Bishop’s Wife or A Christmas Carol?—and the latest news about old friends from college.  Fascinatingly, our friend Don, a doctor, “is living in a leaky geodesic dome, for God’s sake.”  And Melanie, who worked at the co-op,  just finished her Ph.D. at 50. She had to wait till the  mad professor who blocked her retired. 

After the gossip, we moved on to books. And instead of discussing a single book, we each talked about our own favorite books of the year.

How can I choose just one book,  I wondered.  Finally I picked Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale, a neglected Victorian classics. Ward portrays a stormy relationship between Laura, an atheist who has recently lost her father, and Alan Bannisdale, a strict Catholic who has given most of his fortune to a Catholic orphanage.  The two are unsuited, but fall in love by proximity.  But can they have a successful interfaith marriage?  This brilliant, fascinating, complicated novel has been compared to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, one of my favorite books.  

My friend Janet, a poet who lives in a small town near Iowa City, has been reading—surprise, surprise!—poetry.  “I stay up late reading Adrienne Rich’s Collected Poems.  They are a joy: the early poems are formal, then she becomes more experimental.   She digs deep emotionally, and is also very political.”

My cousin Megan, a librarian who boasts that she doesn’t like to read, belongs to our book club “for social reasons.” Her secret is that she does read most of the selections, and she slangily explains why she does not finish those she dislikes. 

“I have to say my favorite is an old book by Georgette Heyer, Venetia.  I love her comic romances.  They’re a bit like Jane Austen.  Venetia lives in the country and gives up the idea of marriage. Then Lord Damerel, a neighbor who’s a libertine, returns home and the witty repartee flies.”

Our friend Linda, home from the East coat for the holidays, was very taken with Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, the award-winning 1,000-page novel which is written from a housewife’s perspective, in one long sentence.  “The secret is to read the e-book so you don’t have to carry that heavy book around.  It’s very witty and accessible.  You can like Alison Pearson and still enjoy Lucy Ellmann.  It’s a surprisingly fast read.”

Sue, who describes herself as “a stressed-out administrative assistant who likes to read in the bathtub,” rediscovered Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street this year.  “My reward for going to college was this crappy administrative assistant job, but I still identify with Carol Kennicott, who left Minneapolis for a small town.  I wonder, What am I doing in Gopher Prairie?  Why don’t I live where there’s culture?”

Sue’s daughter Paula, a part-time server  and a full-time student at a community college,  says good books distract her from “wasted opportunities.”

“I wish I hadn’t gotten into drugs.  I’ll never get my brain back. I can’t do what I used to.”  But she is off drugs and on books now. Her favorite of the year is Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, which she read after watching the DVD of the movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis   “I love the concept of the travel writer who hates to travel. The book is witty and poignant, quirky and never corny.”

Carla, a hospice nurse in Omaha, used to be our mortal enemy. Long ago in school she yanked my long hair (ouch!) when she passed me in the hall, and reduced Janet to tears by mocking a poem she wrote and read aloud in English class.   After many, many years, we ran into Carla at a party. She is kind and witty now.  A bit depressed, though.

“I’m divorced,  everyone in my family is dead, and I’ll never be in another relationship.

“It sounds morbid, but my favorite book this year was The Undying by Anne Boyer.  It’s a memoir about being diagnosed with breast cancer1.  It is poetic, but kind of raw.  It articulates the hell of cancer.”

On this solemn note, we dispersed to a department store, where we all bought flannel nightgowns with coupons.  And then the  book club dispersed. 

Deo volente, we’ll see one other again next Christmas.