You remind me of the babe
What babe? the babe with the power
What power? power of voodoo
Who do? you do
Do what? remind me of the babe
Dance Magic Dance, by David Bowie from the movie Labyrinth
Books are often the topic of discussion at social events. As someone who listens to audiobooks and reads myself to sleep every night, I am always eager to hear about a good one and avidly join in any discussion about books. Reading is a lone wolf activity, but talking about reading is a social mainstay. Social discourse about books can be a random event, when discussion wanders to recent reads, or it can be a formalized and scheduled group event, typically The Book Club. Having just finished a book club selection–and having suffered a bit of impatience to have it read and racked–I was reminded of the BABES. Book clubs come in all shapes and sizes with all manner of rules and expectations, and as a result a club can fit well or fit poorly, but there will never be another one-size-fits-all book club like the BABES.
Origin of the BABES
To find the origin of the BABES, I suppose one really must go back many years, decades if truth be told. As I remember it, two little girls were walking down the street with their dad when they were spied by a woman peering out from her veranda. It must have been summer, and the woman’s girls must have been terribly bored, because she needed playmates for her girls and she needed them now. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Jamie burst forth from the house and halted the little group in their tracks, proposing her girls as their new best friends. Fortunately all the little girls took to each other, the moms subsequently met with equally positive results, and soon Jamie and Priscilla became friends through play dates. Not much later Priscilla’s daughter and mine landed in the same Kindergarten class, Daisy Girl Scout troop, and daisy-picking little girl soccer team. About this time Jame and Priscilla had the idea to start a book club, and I was one of the fortunate mothers-by-loose-association who they thought of to invite.
Memory is a tricky thing at my age, so many years on, but this is what I recall. The first meeting included Jamie (who it turns out is not really a stalker, desperate mothers just do desperate things), Jamie’s Mom (and who does not love a mother and daughter dynamic in the group, unless you are the mother or the daughter), Priscilla (the strolling little girls’ mom met by happenstance), Carol (Jamie’s neighbor and also a mother of a little girl), Joan (Priscilla’s neighbor and mother of an older boy), Krista (Priscilla’s friend recently moved from Chicago), Margot (friend and former real estate agent of Jamie’s, mother of an older boy and a younger daughter) and me (mother of fellow bunch-ball soccer playing, Daisy Scout Kindergartener). We were a gathering of assorted women with different backgrounds, careers, and interests all having one thing in common, a love of books. The first order of business was to select a book–I think it was one Jamie had in mind–and read it for our next meeting.
It was a rather long book as I recall, but I read it cover to cover, marked pages, and made mental notes for discussion. I arrived at the meeting, thoughts in mind and annotated book in hand. I was the only one who had read it. Make no mistake, this was a group of book lovers and everyone had read at least one book since the last meeting, just not that book. They may have been the wiser for avoiding it, I cannot even remember the title so it could not have been that memorable. I think it may have been something fluffy by Colleen McCullough, but would not swear by it. We drank some wine, nibbled some nibbles, and chatted some chats. Thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we decided to give it another try and allow everyone another month to finish the book.
At the next meeting, I was a bit fuzzier about the contents of the book and not quite so ready to discuss it as I had been the month before, but I need not have worried. No one had read it. Clearly what we had was a group of readers who loved reading, but only when that reading was to the beat of their own drum. Our second order of business was to find an alternative for those readers–pretty much everyone in the group–who do not like to be told what they must read. We came up with a brilliant solution, we would collectively select a theme, individually select a book, and discuss how our individual book reflected the theme. All was not lost, we drank some wine, nibbled some nibbles, and chatted some chats and had a marvelous time.
Our first theme was pretty broad, something like a book about American history. I read a fascinating non-fiction book that documented the journey west by wagon train. It was an illuminating read, the narrative relied heavily on source letters and diaries written by travelers on their dangerous and demanding trek. Again I returned with mental notes in mind and annotated book in hand. Everyone had read at least one book–and most had read more than one–but none of those books were related to American history. Well, clearly our theme was too restrictive, so we opened the door even wider. For the next meeting, we would read a historical book about women. It could be fiction, biography, non-fiction, any genre, any historical period, any culture, any anything, it just had to be about women. Here was a theme broad enough to allow every book loving member to find something worth reading. That decided, we moved to the important business of wine, nibble, and chat.
There was loads of fluff and fun to be had with this theme but, not wanting to be caught out as an airhead so soon after meeting this group, I found an interesting non-fiction account of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. We gathered once more, everyone looking forward to wines, nibbles and chats. Once again my mental notes and annotated book were as useful as hot chocolate and a down jacket in a heat wave, everyone had done a lot of reading but no one had read a book about the theme. By now, all I had managed to do is get an unearned reputation as being the intellectual in the group when in reality all I was guilty of was being the compliant one.
An interesting thing happened over the course of these meetings. While we drank our wine, nibbled our nibbles, and chatted our chats, we found that many of the chats were about books that each of us had read. And in between meetings, when we were supposed to be reading a certain type of book, many people had read books that others had mentioned. In fact, some people had even begun to bring and loan copies of the books that they had read. Our third order of business, and the thing that really stuck, was to shamelessly keep our designation as a book club but to admit that in reality we were more of a book exchange.
Over time, individuals learned who had similar tastes and grew to trust their recommendations. We could easily have devolved to a social club–wine, nibbles, and chats certainly were a big part of it–but we did devote a good portion of every meeting to discussing and exchanging books. Sometimes, but not often, a single book would make the rounds and eventually we could discuss it. Very few books were enjoyed by everyone, preferences varied, and we were pretty selective as to which books went home with us. Usually only one or two of us would circulate a book based on another’s recommendation, but every now and then a book caught our collective attention; Loneseome Dove by Larry McMurtry and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner come to mind as books enjoyed by all.
Becoming the BABES
A few years passed and, although we were quite comfortable with who and what we were, someone thought we should have a name. We decided that we would give it some thought and return to the next meeting with suggestions. I came up with a name to propose, the GLIB club, for Gossip, Literature, Issues, and Books. Being a working mother of a young child, at this point in my life it would take a high fever, flat tire, and a flash flood to keep me from a night out with the group, but something did happen to keep me from going that night. GLIB was not proposed and in my absence someone proposed BABES, Bay Area Book Enclave and Society.
Having said one size fits all perhaps is a bit too inclusive. When she moved from Chicago, Etta joined us a couple years later and, fitting right in, has been with us these many years. Other people came and went, some moved away and some just did not appreciate the lack of focus and never returned. We had no rules about joining save the one Jamie insisted upon, you had to have read at least one book in your lifetime. There was one person, not with us for long, who did not understood what we were about. I think she had read at least one book in her lifetime but when she hosted the book club it was not evident. We arrived to a table set all round with little pink mirrors and mini-tubes and tubs. Everyone looked as if this was exactly what they expected, sat down, painted their faces, and filled out order forms in triplicate with stubby little pencils. I thought that everyone knew about this in advance except me but I was wrong. No one did, and no one betrayed their surprise and confusion, each one of us thinking that everyone else was aware of the agenda. It was only later when this person drifted away from the BABES did we all realize that each of us was doing our best to go along with the others, but each of us was bitterly disappointed to be subjected to facials and face paint when all we wanted to do was to wine, nibble, and chat about our (different) books.
Nothing Like a BABE
Jamie, who herself has since joined other book clubs, called me a book club slut when I ventured out to another club. I was invited by someone who is quite easy going, or shall we say not at all detail oriented, to go with her to her book club. After being with the BABES, I knew I would like a book club that served wine and spread out tables laden with food, so I went. It was different, everyone had read the book and the discussion went methodically one person at a time around the circle. Only after everyone had spoken their thoughts was discussion allowed. Although it was not quite as social as the BABES, and had far more rules, I did enjoy the insights and discussions about a single book that had been read by everyone in the group. About 5 or 6 meetings into it, someone mentioned that they needed to schedule hosts for the upcoming meetings. I immediately volunteered; after all those times of being the guest and enjoying the hospitality, it was my turn to cook, clean, and burden a table with the weight of floral arrangements, bottles of wine, and piles of food. One woman turned to me as if I had volunteered to serve warm Gatorade and chilled dog food and said coldly, “You are not a member of this group.” She then went on to say, as my face burned with mortification, that I would not be a member of this group, that it would not be fair to other people who had wanted to join this group before me to even consider such a thing, and leaving off just short of telling me it would be a cold day in Hell before I was invited to join. This, in front of the entire group sitting who sat silently as my face grew redder and redder with shame. I did not know what to say, and being speechless was probably the best response as afterwards all I could think was, what a [insert your favorite term for such a person here]. Had the initial invitation come from a person who paid more attention to details, or had the group made it clear that it was exclusive and I a tolerated once or twice guest, I would have not kept coming back like a bad penny. I could have saved them the trouble of telling me, and avoided the humiliation of being told, that I was not welcome.
Currently I am in a short story discussion group, and generally I do not like short stories, but I was specifically invited to this group and so far they have not kicked me to the curb. For a writer to get in and get out, developing character, plot, and setting in just a few words is brilliant. However, so many of the stories we have read are just grim and grimmer. But I love the people in the group and, if I keep my mouth firmly in the shut position–not killing the discussion by being the first to blurt out, “That one was the worst EVER!”–often the discussion uncovers value and interest in the story. Not so I want to read it again, but at least forcing me to reevaluate the “worst ever” and restate it as “a miserable read” with some merit. There are chats and cups of tea, but never wine and seldom nibbles.
My current book club–also by exclusive invitation by virtue of it starting at work and I was working there at the time–is a rotate the book choice through each member format. My experience with the BABES, knowing which person’s recommendations align with my preferences, is reflected here. I look forward to the recommendations of some members and almost always enjoy reading their selection. With others, let us just say I hold my breath and furrow my brow a bit before the book is announced. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, sometimes I just slog through it, broadening my horizons but not enjoying the ride. The unique thing about this group is that, not everyone is on site and much of it is conducted remotely via conference calling. There are really good chats, both chats about the book and the many tangents leading from that book discussion, but as to the wine and nibbles it falls short. Even if it were not too early in the day for wine, I would be drinking alone. I could nibble, but in deference to others on the speaker phones and extensions it is probably for the best that I avoid crunching, chomping, and smacking my lips. Other than reading, it is surprising it reminded me of the BABES. But, with or without wine and nibbles, a shared love of reading is a common thread and the basis of a potentially wonderful group.
This loosey goosey group has survived for decades. Over the many years, we have watched our children grow, leave home, and find their own way in the world. Life moved forward between the times that we periodically got together to eat, drink, and be merry. Among us we have lived our lives, spun our stories, suffered our losses, experienced our joys, endured our heartaches, and found our laughter. We grew older together, our life passages passed into collective memory. We begun to meet sporadically rather than regularly and there was much to catch up with and share each time we did. Another rule came into being without anyone ever stating it specifically; each person had an uninterrupted turn to update the others on the twists and turns of her life since last we met. If someone was in need of a pity party, a congratulations, understanding and undivided attention, or just a good laugh for her story, she got it.
Getting together is now a rare event as most of us have moved further and further away from each other, but we still get together when we can. We are people with a shared history, our pasts are in the past but remembered in the present. Months and even years go by, and we are as comfortable with each other as we were when were young mothers escaping for a night out with the BABES. Time and distance do not erode those bonds. To a person, we will always love drinking our wine, nibbling our nibbles, and chatting our chats. Together.