Join the (Book) Club

I have become an outlier in my own book club. It's an occupational hazard, I suppose, just the lot of the novelist. While the rest of the club -- a psychologist, a real estate agent, various businessmen -- read for entertainment and enlightenment, I'm always teasing out plot inconsistencies and dangling modifiers.

We begin each meeting with a round robin, where each person gives a brief summary of his reaction to the book and rates it on a scale of 1 to 10. At one of our recent meetings, about a well-reviewed novel that had tons of great blurbs and a beautiful image on the cover (I know, I know, but still it does influence the choice), the ratings were all 9s and 10s -- until my turn came. Jaws dropped as I announced that I would give the book no more than a 6.

I agreed about the quality of the writing; I love a nicely wrought turn of phrase as much as the next guy. But the plot went nowhere. With each chapter, the specifics of the story changed, but the thematic development was virtually nil. The author just kept making the same point over and over again, hoping that pretty language and imagery would hide the fact that he had run out of ideas on page 50.

For everyone else in the group, he succeeded.

This, of course, wasn't the first time I'd been on the outskirts of book club consensus. At the other end of the scale, there was the time I recommended we read The Wings of the Dove. This was when the club was new and we had very little sense of one another's taste. And somehow I'd forgotten that not everyone (okay, hardly anyone) likes Henry James as much as I do. If memory serves, only one other member of the group actually finished the book.

Our club alternates selections among classic fiction, contemporary fiction, and nonfiction. And, much to my surprise, I have found myself most excited about the nonfiction category -- the choices for which I typically leave to others. Thanks to the club, I've read works I would never have picked up on my own -- most recently, Michael Pollan's Second Nature, a charming and enlightening book about gardening, of all things. Other books have changed the way I view the world from a philosophical standpoint. But Second Nature is perhaps the first one that has literally changed the way I see the world: I now can't pass by a front lawn or a patch of weeds without remembering Pollan's disquisition on the subject.

My greatest success at recommending a book for the club was quite easy, in retrospect. For one classic rotation, I suggested The Great Gatsby. In the four years of the group, Gatsby is still the reigning champion -- the only book ever to receive a unanimous score of 10. But it's hard to screw up that masterpiece. Unless you turn it into a film.

At our last session, I felt a need to explain why I had single-handedly brought our latest novel's average score down by 20 percent. I went on and on until, suddenly worried I was sounding too professorial, I clammed up. But another reader came to my rescue with an unexpected expression of appreciation for my perspective: My comments, he said, helped him to see the books from a different angle. That kind of analysis is second-nature to me. I guess what Michael Pollan does for compost, I do for literature.

I wonder sometimes if my hypercriticism of contemporary fiction (which is getting rapidly more pronounced) is really just a case of sour grapes. Every two months, I'm asked to read yet another book with an Amazon ranking thousands of points higher than mine, and I find myself scouring the pages for a reason and seldom finding one.

But sour grapes is too facile an explanation for my particular critical stance. It's not that I think I could do better (well, sometimes, it is, but not always); it's more that I can't help looking at the inner workings of fiction. The question isn't just whether the book works but how it works, and what aspects of it don't click. I suppose it's how an orthopedist would watch a tennis game: To the rest of us, that's just Anna Kournikova's arm powering the racket; to a doctor, it's a whole network of muscles and bones and sinews. Frankly, I'd hate to be a doctor. I imagine that they walk through life as if it were one of those dreadful cadaver exhibits, where mummified, fleshless corpses are arranged around a poker table for the amusement of the undead masses.

But then, there are the occasions when I'm on display, invited to other people's book clubs, clubs that are reading my own work. That, frankly, is even more fascinating. That's when I'm the one who hears a new and different perspective. After working on a book for years, pulling my few remaining hairs out over the right adjective or plot twist, I see the whole thing through the eyes of a reader, for whom it's just a story -- an object that has come into their hands complete. And they come up with things I hadn't even noticed -- often, startling, wonderful things. And I realize that no one has a monopoly on the truth.