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The mythical all-men's book club

Book clubs are often thought of as women's spaces. So when I heard about a gathering of guys who meet once a month to discuss a book, I had to check it out.

What do Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and a book club for men all have in common? They’re mythical creatures, only seen in blurry photos taken by unreliable witnesses, and most people don’t believe they actually exist.

Until now.

Because I have conclusive proof of the existence one of those unresolved mysteries.

Not of an ape-like Sasquatch, or the legendary marine creature in Scotland, affectionately called Nessie. But of a gathering of guys who meet once a month to discuss a book, enjoy a few adult beverages and eat delicious cuisine themed to match the story.

Still skeptical?

That’s OK. Ten years ago, when a friend’s husband said, “Yeah, I’m in a guys’ book club. You should join us sometime!” I immediately thought, wow, what a clever ruse. I assumed he was hiding poker night or cigar night or a fantasy football draft under the guise of a “book club,” which seemed — to quote Hayley Mills — scathingly brilliant. (Eighty-eight percent of private book clubs are all-women groups, according to Publishers Weekly.)

Much to my astonishment, however, they actually read books. Lots of books. Serious books.

I learned this the hard way when I showed up to my first meeting of the Books & Brews Book Club. Their selection that month was "The Crying Lot of 49" by Thomas Pynchon. A postmodern thriller disguised as a mash-up of satire, humor and Saturnalia, infused with pop culture references. At least that’s what one guy stated.

I don’t know what the others said because I was treading water in a sea of rich, ribald commentary, an ocean of laughter and a small pond of Jameson Irish Whiskey.

A scene from a recent book club meeting.
A scene from a recent book club meeting.Courtesy Jamie Ford

While I didn’t care for that book in particular (I’ll be honest, the guys in my club have reading comprehension levels waaaaay above that of yours truly), I did enjoy a hilarious and memorable evening. Suddenly the veil had been pulled from my eyes and I understood why there are an estimated 5 million book club members in the U.S. We’re ten of that 5 million and odds are we’re one of the few groups with Y chromosomes.

We few, we happy few, we band of book club brothers.

So, what’s a guys’ book club really like, you might be wondering?

Honestly, it’s not that different from any other book club (and as an author, I’ve visited many), but there are a few things we might do differently, for instance:

  • We rate our books on a scale of one to six beers. If memory serves, the only two books to receive a perfect six-pack were "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy, and "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel, two wildly different books but each an amazing read, followed by hours of discussion.
  • Sometimes we’ll take a field trip related to the book we’re reading. Like when we read "Lean On Pete" by Willy Vlautin, a novel set in and around horse racing. For this particular novel, we held our book club meeting at the local track, talking about the book, betting on horses and losing money, two dollars at a time.
  • In the summer, someone will host a book club barbecue where spouses and significant others are invited, plus kids, dogs, etc. As much as we think this will be a lively group discussion with our partners added to the mix, inevitably they get bored and have their own gathering, usually with several bottles of wine, while we’re in the backyard. (As I write this, I realize the fatal flaw in this plan each year is that we forget to invite our partners to read that month’s book. Probably because we assume they wouldn’t want to read what we’ve chosen).

More on this …

After two years, we realized we had never read a book by a female author. There was always a diverse mix of literary voices, but when we voted as a group, somehow the Erik Larsons, Jim Harrisons and Saul Bellows garnered the most votes. Until one member put an end to this when it was his turn to host (looking at you, Geoff) by making sure all of the books we were voting on were by female authors. We ended up going with "People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks. Since then then we’ve read books by Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker, Jhumpa Lahiri, and the list goes on. For next summer’s book club barbecue, I’ll suggest we invite our partners to choose that month’s book and lead the discussion.

One month we decided to read a popular women’s book club selection, choosing between "Eat, Pray, Love," "Wild" and "Maid." We went with "Wild." This begs the question: Does gender play a role in the choice of books for your book club? Do women naturally read more female authors, and if so, do they try and break that pattern? As humans, we sometimes self-segregate, often subconsciously. Would it help all of us to take the time to get out of our lanes and appreciate the storytelling experiences of others? Straight people reading more queer authors. Americans reading more books in translation. I think about this a lot.

Sometimes we take the book club outside.
Sometimes we take the book club outside. Courtesy Jamie Ford

Lastly, our meetings often include a firepit, a backyard, meeting in a garage or gathering in some other space where guys tend to hang out. One member hosted the meeting in his wood shop and as our discussion was winding down he donned a set of shop glasses, switched on a screaming table-saw, cut some planks, and decide we all needed to learn how to break them — with our hands. He was a black belt. The rest of us, um, let’s just say we went home that night with a colorful assortment of bruises and mangled fingers. To this day I still have a bone spur in my right hand. I guess we’ll avoid the fight club and stick to book club.