The Critical Mass

Book of the Future Month Club

My Friend Sue belongs to a book club. They meet over hors d’ouvres and white wine and discuss that month’s book. Hillary Mantell’s Wolf Hall, that’s one I remember Sue’s group having dissected. A weighty novel about Oliver Cromwell. Plenty of heads roll in that one.

Book clubs. They’re a small thing we can do to battle the current breeze of anti-intellectualism.

A few years ago, I was hitting the local literary circuit for my self-published book, Chasing the Wind. I did about eight or 10 clubs, sometimes with Ernie, the 93-year-old sailor who I’d written about. Usually I’d read a few brief selections from the book, then answer questions. The club members seemed excited that the real-live author was actually sitting in the living room, drinking wine – the Mormon book club excluded – and talking about the Battle of Savo Island. And asking questions like, “Who’s the most-famous musician you’ve ever met?”

“Johnny Cash, I guess.”

Without exception, every member of every book club was a woman.

What? Guys don’t read books? I know that’s not true.

Maybe we just don’t do well with sharing our feelings about literature. But actually, I think it’s something else. We’re not into organizing these things, like we do with softball teams and bowling leagues. Entities with uniforms, chicken wings and beer. Instead, our book clubs are informal affairs. As I discovered when I bought a battered copy of Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold for 50 cents. Because I liked the cover. And I started reading it.

I casually mentioned it to My Friend Dick. And was stunned to discover that he was also reading Farnham’s Freehold at that moment. The two of us, reading one of Heinlein’s lesser-known sci-fi novels. What are the odds? So we had an informal book club meeting right there. The book has some intriguing ideas, like a car that generates its own power by the wheels powering a turbine. But at this stage of his career, Heinlein’s cranky ideas had taken firm hold of his characters. Farnham’s Freehold is the story of a family retreating into a bomb shelter during a Russian nuclear attack, then emerging to find a completely new world. Somehow, they’ve been blasted into the future. The main character is a mysogenistic, know-it-all creep whose wife is portrayed as an irrational alcoholic. So we excuse him for running off with a younger woman who’s better suited for the challenges of a survivalist lifestyle.

Heinlein actually did have a bomb shelter in his home in Colorado. I suspect there was some fantasy fulfillment on his part as he typed these pages.

I also discovered that the images on that cool cover that had prompted me to buy the book had nothing to do with the story.

Dick loaned me another Heinlein book. The Cat Who Walked Through Walls. The book was used, that’s the only way to acquire mass paperbacks. A little ragged, it had a bunch of small holes punched through the cover and into the first few pages. Someone’s small dog had gotten ahold of the book during its history.

The Cat Who Walked Through Walls? Pretty much the same thing as Farnham’s Freehold. Time travel, a future dystopian world. The protagonist doesn’t like his fellow characters who need a hand. “There’s no free lunch” is his motto. Objectivism is a quality Heinlein seems to admire in his heroes. Dick, who I consider to be a bit of an unchained intellectual, calls Heinlein “Ayn Rand with rockets.” And a cat does indeed walk through a wall.

So after our book club’s two experiences with Heinlein, I was feeling like I was through with the guy. But while walking through the flea market at the Rochester Public Market, I spotted a pile of battered paperbacks. Heinleins. I bought a handful of them. Because I liked the covers.

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