No Holds Barred: Booked and Hooked on Families

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Cover detail of Griffin Dunne's The Friday Afternoon Club, "... a family story that embraces the poignant absurdities and best and worst efforts of its loveable, infuriating, funny, and moving characters—its author most of all."

I am not proud to say that I am not a book reader. It is an admitted embarrassment. What can I say? It might have to do with having a severe learning disorder as a kid. I was “slow” and reading came hard, as did graduating from high school. I had the attention span of a flea and only read magazines.

This was especially troubling as my mom Audrey was a voracious reader. I grew up with her gifting me tons of books only to be left untouched. We were very close. She died in 2021 at 99 in our house in a room stocked with her favorite titles which she curated in her final years. As tight as we were, the fact that she couldn’t really share her passion for reading with me was a notable loss. Meanwhile, when everyone I knew talked books with her … I left the room.

Mom’s reading quote pasted to her book shelf.

Admittedly she was a very esoteric, eccentric reader and most of her books went way over my head. But she was known to gift terrific titles to the right people; and that is a talent. Most of my ex-boyfriends who had long since dumped me continued to stay in touch with Audrey for her book suggestions alone.

Mom in her 97th year during a book break.

Towards the end of her life, she spent two years carefully divesting her vast collection. It was an emotional time for her to figure out exactly what secondhand bookstore or person got what.

I knew her longevity had to do with her reading. Although her body started to decline, her eyes remained focused on the written word (despite her having the “good” macular degeneration). Fictional characters and authors lived in her head as close friends. Especially as she lost most of her family and friends — she always had her books. Wherever she went (doctor appointments, even dinners out) she packed a volume of something.

And Audrey’s life of reading had a tight schedule. Breakfast were her literary journals. Lunch was fiction. History and nonfiction were afternoon. Poetry was “happy hour.” Psalms and Torah was a bedtime and Zen Buddhism was at night when she couldn’t sleep. My mom was “booked.”

Before she died, she gifted me with a particular selection of books that remain piled at the foot of my bed … unread!! I will get there … soon. I decided to leave her bedroom exactly the way she lived in it. A complete library. Each shelf has a different theme.

Mom’s highly edited library bedroom as she left it.

Mom’s art and picture book collection.

Some of mom’s fave stacks.

Remaining chotckes and books.

Her most bare book shelf.

I knew she was actually dying (the final week) when she suddenly stopped reading. She wanted Turner Movie Musical Classics on her TV rather than her usual addiction to Judge Judy and the news.

Judge Judy
5 p.m. was mom’s holy hour with Judge Judy.

I noticed her night table was empty of her typical stack. Every surface used to have one or two books on it. Out of the blue, her reading choices were all gone … and then so was she. “I’m never lonely or upset as long as I have a book,” she told me. I didn’t get that gene, but there is still time.

I think of her constantly, and lately I find myself sick and tired of spending my nights streaming through the movie platforms. Though my mom enjoyed her Brit Box mysteries, she still chose her books over Netflix because she had such trouble with the double remotes and sound.

I had to admit that all that streaming and Instagram reels finally fried my brain. Last week I ended up ordering two books at 2:00 a.m. on Amazon. I haven’t bought a book for myself in 30 years.

I broke the spell with Do Something by Guy Trebay. And The Friday Afternoon Club by Griffin Dunne. Both are memoirs by men I actually met briefly, and who made an impression on me.

Mom’s book choices for me at the foot of my bed.
My two recent bought book choices after 20 years of not buying or reading a book!

Guy Trebay was at the Village Voice when I was a columnist there. He was just starting at the “assistant editor” desk, a hideous position having to deal with all the crazy Voice egos. But he was one of the few people in the office who actually spoke to me. I remember how we exchanged anecdotes on the hot down town scene at the time. He covers all that and more to the max in his new book, Do Something: Coming of Age Amid the Glitter and Doom of ’70s New York. Not to mention revealing his complicated family life growing up outside the city especially in the Bronx. Guy went on to become one of the best freelance observers of New York and then landed a regular gig at The New York Times as their “esteemed” culture reporter. Nobody says it or sees it better than Guy!

I met Griffin Dunne when he was living with Carrie Fisher who was a close friend of mine in the ’70s. She often gave celebrity packed parties at their Upper West Side apartment. I was the only non “New Hollywood” person in the room. But Griffin sat down with me and made me laugh the whole night. I told Carrie she could pass him on to me whenever she was done. She never really was. They went on to become the best of friends. Everyone soon had a crush on Griffin. I never forgot that. Like his dad Dominick Dunne, he had that warmth and gracious accessibility … both were great listeners and observers.

Reading Griffin’s current book about his incredibly talented and troubled family totally grabbed me. And remember, I tend to bail after the second paragraph of anything. Dunne got me to stick it out and turn that page!! Then again, both Guy and Griffin have terrific material. I kept thinking my mom would be thrilled at my newfound discovery.

Mom always had room for a newfound discovery.

The other side of the book story is how aware I am of the book club explosion. After all, that is what put Oprah on the map. Though book clubs have been baked into our historical culture forever.

Now we have over 5 million book clubs in America. Celebrity book clubs are everywhere; Reese Witherspoon, Emma Watson, Emma Roberts, Jenna Bush, Florence Welch and Sarah Michelle Gellar have all added books to their brand. TikTok and Pornhub now offer book lists for followers. Pick your interest — romance, gay romance, household plumbing — Bookstagram offers “Loc’d and Lit.”

13 books to add to your summer reading list brought to you by Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club.

With the celebrities it’s not only about the books but the “swag” as well. You can buy hot reading glasses, a meditative candle, plush slippers, and cozy pajamas to wear while you cuddle up to a title.

I guess this is what is putting the juice back into publishing? Or is it? Years ago, I was friends with an independent publisher who ended up retiring because everyone wanted to write their own memoir and there wasn’t the market or the great editors to withstand it. Now you can just self-publish anything via Amazon and get your tome out there, then stage your own book party or social media campaign.

But who is really buying all those books, let alone actually READING?? Everyone is so caught up scrolling on their phones and tablets. And scrolling is different than holding a real live book in your hands. It’s a different eye/brain connection. Hardcore book people don’t scroll. They READ!! My mom believed in that and never even owned a Kindle. So there!!

I understand the social aspect of book clubs and the popularity reminds me of the thrill of going to a gym or yoga class (some book clubs offer yoga stretching before they discuss the book). It’s all about trend and social and “good for your brain” stimulation.

I read somewhere that most book clubs last two years. My best friend is a serious reader (including cereal boxes) and she and my mother were very close. Luckily, she stepped in for me on the book loving aspect. She rarely shops for books as she prefers to go to the library regularly and takes out a barrel of titles. Recently she went on a 10-day trip to see her son and grandson and took three books with her, but had to hit a good local bookstore (and they are rare nowadays) to get four more. She practically read a book a day(!!) before donating her six books to the hotel “library” — or maybe she just got them to start a library.

Ironically, my pal refuses to join a book club. “I wanna read what I wanna read and when and how.” Her biggest revelation to me was how she has no guilt dumping out of an 800-page book on page 750!! “I believe in moving on. I never “endure” a read. No book guilt ever. Even if everyone raves and I can’t get to the end.”

Oprah’s latest selection — better late than never.

She did tell me of an idea she heard in Santa Fe called a “book exchange,” not a club!! The group meets regularly, and each brings a book and puts it on the table. Then there’s a discussion of why each person liked their choice. From there the others can borrow or adopt each selection. That sounds like a totally new twist on book sharing. Conversation and circulation.

Obviously book clubs are here to stay. Last week Oprah made headlines when she missed announcing her latest book club choice Familiaris by David Wroblewski. But it was her best friend Gayle King who went on CBS Morning News to announce how Oprah had “had some kind of stomach thing – stomach flu – stuff was coming out of both ends.”

It became the day’s biggest story and immediately there were prayer circles forming for Oprah.

Nobody remembered the new book title, only Gayle’s oversharing.

Again I ask … are we actually reading books nowadays or just streaming shit?

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