Coed clubs are giving men and women time to talk about books Novel Approach

November 20, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

On a dark November evening, Sara and Nelson Fishman's home glows with the passions and insights of a group who have gathered to discuss "Call It Sleep," Henry Roth's 1934 classic novel about Jewish immigrants in New York City.

After a pleasant half-hour of cake and coffee and a warm-up biographical introduction by book club leader Ghita Levine, the discussion gets right down to business.

"Something that bothered me is that the descriptions . . . are very surface. You know what everybody says but not what they think," says Sidney Brower, a professor of urban planning at the University of Maryland. "The mother seems too good, the father seems too bad. The book seems like a very good comic book to me."

A tide of more sympathetic reactions rises in some of the women.

To leader Ms. Levine, this interplay of interpretations -- and attitudes -- is one of the bonuses of belonging to a coed book club, a universe still predominantly female.

As a cultural form, book clubs have been dominated by women, according to Rice University sociologist Elizabeth Long who is working on a book "Between Public Culture and Private Lives: Reading Groups and the Making of the Middle Classes."

"It was because women were supposed to have this particular affinity to culture and because educational opportunities did not open up for women nearly as quickly as they did for men," she explains.

However, coed clubs have gained in popularity slowly over the past 50 years. She suspects the growth is tied directly to the increasing numbers of men and women who have attended college together and learned to feel comfortable agreeing -- and arguing -- about intellectual matters.

Coed book club participants agree. "I think having men brings a harder edge to the discussion," says Ms. Levine, director of communications at Johns Hopkins University. "I think they don't forgive the author as readily as women do. We had one discussion where everyone loved a book -- and Sidney hated it. We spent the evening discussing his contentions -- and finally won him over.

"But he was daring to throw out this discordant note very early. I think men are less awestruck than women by authors. They tend to come in with the hard-edged criticisms."

Other benefits abound, as well, according to Ms. Long. "These groups also offer people an unusual opportunity to have reflective and analytic discussions about the external world and relevant issues. There aren't very many places where you can have that kind of talk, whether you are a man or a woman."

"I think people are starving for the kind of intellectual intimacy that happens when everyone has read the same thing and wants to talk about it," says Christine Wiencke, one of the founders of "Reading Woman," a quarterly periodical based in Minneapolis.

Although many observers say women's reading groups allow women to express themselves more freely than they would in front of men, Ms. Levine believes that coed dynamics keep everyone more focused on the topic. She suspects there is less general banter -- and fewer digressions.

"It seems to me the social chitchat that women alone might indulge in makes the men a little uncomfortable. If the men weren't in the room, we might linger a little more, say, on the baby that Shelley just had."

Which is not to say that belonging to a coed book club has an appeal that is strictly intellectual.

The group to which Nanny and Jack Warren belong, for instance, has nourished their friendships with other couples and has provided a common activity.

During the past 12 years, the Warrens have explored terrain ranging from Homer's "Odyssey" to Gail Sheehy's "The Silent Passage." They have also weathered deaths and divorces and celebrated weddings and births within the group.

"The friendships have become an important part of the book club," says Ms. Warren, who runs her own gift business. "It shows in our discussions: We're all very respectful of each other." Part of that respect includes women going along with "men's books" and vice versa. This month, Ms. Warren's group discussed Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina," generally considered a "woman's" book.

"I tend to speak my mind and throw out books that are a bit provocative and that have to do with women's issues," says book club member Martha Sweatman, a clinical social worker in the neurology and neurosurgery services at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She describes the reaction when she chose Gail Sheehy's book on menopause for the group: "At first, the men pull their hair and say 'Do we have to read another of Martha's books?' Then they say, 'Well, if she feels so strongly about it, maybe we can learn something from it.' "

But then December's book is Giuseppe di Lampedusa's "The Leopard," a book that some might say is more keyed to men's sensibilities.

Ms. Levine, who chooses the books for her club, says a varied reading menu is another benefit of a coed club.

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