It had only been about 14 hours after we’d said our good-byes when the Slack alert popped up on my screen. “What is Tom’s deal?” my friend Patrick asked (names have been changed to protect the thirsty). Tom and Patrick were both new-ish members of my book club, a group of about a dozen early-30-something gay men (and one or two straight women) who had just met the night before. Our club is pretty standard-issue — we send endless emails trying to get together, spend much of our time gossiping, and have rosé-fueled debates about whether Elena Ferrante could possibly be a man, or where the narrator of The Idiot falls on the spectrum, or if A Little Life qualifies more as torture or interiors porn. The only difference, of course, is that some of our members will probably have sex with each other.
Like a good dinner party, what I’m calling “gay book club” has a few critical ingredients — gay friends who like each other but don’t see each other that regularly, a space that’s comfortable enough to accommodate a group of eight or more for book discussion and the requisite post-discussion noodling around, very free-flowing booze, and (this is key) a smattering of new faces to keep it interesting. Everything else — having finished the book, snacks, straight women — is optional.
“Let’s say you’re at a bar,” says Erik, a 30-year-old editor who’s in my book club, “you’re meeting people and just going by looks. But at book club, your intelligence and intellect are on display. It’s a different kind of mating dance.” Observing that romance will fly in a room of gay men is like discovering that water is wet, but the kind of attraction that blooms over discussion of a book is different than the kind that’s stirred at gay dodgeball or Metropolitan (or, yes, on Grindr). To dissect a novel (the tragedy of The Goldfinch or pretentiousness of Private Citizens) is to peek into someone’s interior life ten minutes into meeting them. “I remember one discussion we had about a character who was being harassed, and someone had such a callous response that I was taken aback,” says Erik. “I think because you’re talking about fictional characters, book clubs can reveal character traits about people that are otherwise hidden.” There’s an inhibition-loosening abandon to book club: For 20- and 30-somethings a decade-plus removed from freshman seminar, sitting in a room with strangers and talking Big Ideas can feel like a suspension of the rules of real-life gameplay. They overshare, or get vulnerable, or play devil’s advocate. In one meeting you learn the kind of information about a person — their values and capacity for empathy, or their ability to engage differing points of view — that would take at least three dinners. Book-club meetings are effectively group speed dating.
Garrett, a 25-year-old designer who’s a member of another gay book club, thinks that the book-club environment has all the trappings for seduction: “It’s very late at night when we have these meetings,” he says, “and you’re with these high-powered 20- and 30-something-year-olds in offices with their incredible views. It’s easy to get swept up.” What’s sex if not a little bit of escapism or voyeurism — or both?
The tension inherent in book-club discussion can be its own aphrodisiac, too. Garrett notes that were it not for book club, he wouldn’t have become interested in someone who challenged him. “I don’t ordinarily entertain the idea of opposites attracting, but he had such divergent opinions that I couldn’t help thinking, ‘How could this same story lead to such different feelings in him?’” Garrett says. “Things he hated, I loved. It drove me to talk to him afterward, and then that evolved into something else.” It’s a hoary fictional trope that love springs from hate — Elizabeth and Darcy, Han Solo and Princess Leia, Sam and Diane — but a cliché only describes a repeating pattern. To despise someone is to care enough to expend energy on them, after all. A fiery gay-book-club conversation, then, can act as emotional fluffer, pitting its members against each other and priming them for ecstatic, headboard-rattling makeup sex.
Disagreement can actually be a welcome upside because, just by nature of how these clubs are formed (friends who invite friends who invite friends), their members tend to be very much alike. “There’s a certain curriculum that you need to have read to be participating in a book club,” says Erik. “So at least in ours, everyone’s read Call Me By Your Name or The Rules Do Not Apply. And if you haven’t, it’s fine, but a little unlikely. The club can serve as intellectual vetting.” By that measure, book clubs succeed where dating apps and bars fail — sifting out people who can hang with your friends, roll with your intellectual curiosities, and (quite likely) share your tax bracket. “When I think of the cost of book club, there are a good amount of people in my life who probably wouldn’t be able to participate,” says Garrett. “Between buying books, getting drinks afterward, and having a space to host — it all adds up.”
If the whole thing sounds elitist, well, it is. If you’re not into the idea of overeducated people who have expendable income and time to grouse about made-up stories, I wouldn’t suggest my book club. But dating’s elitist, as much as we use palatable euphemisms like “common interests” and “compatibility.” For certain gay men who want to commune with others like themselves — literary, critical-thinking, bitchily articulate — it’s an incredibly efficient screening service.
I suspect there’s another reason that book club feels so uniquely sexy, though. In college I read a memoir of a woman who was a student during China’s Cultural Revolution. The setting was so strict — no co-ed fraternizing, much less romance — that every innocent interaction became fraught with sexual meaning. A smile was as illicit as a kiss. A hand on the shoulder was foreplay. As an 18-year-old, I found the descriptions of longing laughable; I get it now. “If someone were flirting openly in the discussion of a book, that would be a social faux pas,” says Erik. “I would want them to take it outside. But if you guys are flirting about the book, that’s totally okay.” Within the parameters of acceptable book-club behavior, there are covert-ish ways to signal attraction: laughing at a joke, holding eye contact a millisecond too long, seconding a book selection. It all sounds a bit Victorian (or is it Communist?), but there’s something to be said for the tacit expression of romantic interest — that it’s done in full view of the entire room is central to the sexual thrill. Truly, are there any words more erotic than, “To go back to Jason’s point …”?
I never did find out exactly what happened between Tom and Patrick. I know they got a drink after our meeting. I know they each texted me about the other. After that, who knows? Even the liveliest discussions don’t necessarily form the foundation of a lasting connection. We might agree that meeting someone in your friend’s living room and cannonballing into intimacy has its appeal, but let’s not get carried away. You can lead a gay man to book club, but you can’t make him your boyfriend.