Friday, October 20, 2006
Dorothy Parker, onetime editor of Vanity Fair, established The Algonquin Round Table. Parker, a favorite of mine, met with her colleagues--some from Vanity Fair--for lunch to talk about literature, politics, projects. This gathering was considered by many as one of her most brilliant and accomplished achievements. It brought together many of the best writers of that time: Robert Benchley, Robert E. Sherwood, James Thurber, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Franklin P. Adams, and many others.
The hotel, still on 44th Street, has a" lived in" almost tired look even after its rennovation a couple of years ago. The smallish lobby has velvet covered chairs in small groupings where you can sip sherry after theater or before going into the Rose Room for dinner. It's hard not to think about Parker and her writer friends when you're in that room.
And now for the seque.
About a year and a half ago, a friend of mine, Charles, who I met in a writing group, asked me to join a reading group that was forming. Now, let me be clear. I have always thought reading groups were one of two things: library geeks who read the great books and are all retired; or suburban, middle aged women who wanted a night out and a chance to read the latest pop fiction a notch above Danielle Steele.
Charles was convincing. "It's very small, oh, and the guy who's organizing it has been published," he coaxed. Now, that's the real deal to those of us who are working on that goal, so my interest was piqued. "Oh, and by the way, he's Oliver Stone's nephew." Maybe a dubious distinction since I'm not really a Stone fan. But, at any rate, I agreed. We met downtown in Gene's apartment. Our first read was Somerset Maughman, then Graham Greene. Every member had a turn to choose, and the best part, any one could veto any book with no questions asked.
But the group didn't last long. It was evident after a couple of sessions that Gene really had designed this soiree as a forum for his views and little else. I guess we didn't make the cut, because Gene sent out an email saying he no longer could host the group, and really wasn't interested in continuing.
So, now we were three: Charles, another writer who Charles met at his writing group in Brooklyn, Kenneth, and me. The three of us decided to continue with the idea that we would expand the group when we found someone that we thought would be a good fit. Over time, we read a Swedish novel about a Danish king, Willa Cather, and this past week, "Snow" by Omman Pamuk, Turkish author who just received the Nobel Prize for literature. We now have two new members, also writers ( like us with day jobs ) Joe, who I met in my fiction class at NYU, and Rebecca, a colleague of Kenneth at a New York bank. Some of us are single, some married, some have same sex partners. Our ages range from 30 something to 60.
We meet every six weeks. Everyone brings a beverage, I have some snacks. The group arrives at 7:15 on a Wednesday evening. And, for two hours, we talk about the characters, the relevance of the author's point of view. We read favorite passages. I usually research the author and read something about the writers' life, influences, passions. When we've all had a chance to express ourselves--and argue points--we select the book for next time, set a date. And then, they leave. We really don't socialize much--it's more like class in a way with like-minded acquaintences who love words, the power of words, the magic of spinning a story.
I learn something every time we meet. I read something I would probably never have read--there's such a tendency to read authors you know or think you will like--and this group offers a chance to stretch.
I'm not Dorothy Parker, and we haven't created the roundtable. I'm certain I'm not as cynical as she was, or as talented. She might even have found the group not edgy enough for her style. But, creating an opportunity to gather with a common love of words. That's the spirit of Parker. That we have created.