Think of a book club, and the image that comes to mind is one of a group of middle-aged women in a suburban living room, munching on crudités and sipping white wine, talking about The Kite Runner for 20 minutes and then sliding effortlessly into gossip about the markers of suburban ennui: children, husbands, lovers (always other people’s, of course), school boards, nosy neighbors, nosier bosses, and how Linda has lost so much weight since the divorce, maybe we should say something?
My mother has been in such a book club for over 20 years. It meets on the first Monday of every month, and twice a year each member brings in a list of books for the following six months, and then all the women vote. (Paperbacks only, please!) I personally have been in at least four failed book clubs, so the thought of being in one for 20 years seems almost quixotic. Most recently, a co-worker and I decided on a New York-themed book club; we made it through some John Cheever short stories, The Age of Innocence and Washington Square before giving up.
But the book club that met the other evening at the Upper East Side apartment of Susan and Charles Avery Fisher—who is better known as Chip and is the son of Avery Fisher, for whom the hall in Lincoln Center is named—did not seem like the sort of book club that gives up easily. Mr. Fisher, who is 52, runs a company that manufactures a “cranial stimulator,” which delivers an electrical current to the brains of patients suffering from depression; he has also owned a catering company, a cookware store and an Upper East Side ice cream shop called Mr. Chips.
Mr. Fisher started his book club three years ago; it meets only four times a year, always on a Monday evening, in the vast living room of his apartment at Fifth Avenue and 87th Street. (It is the kind of living room where one hardly notices the grand piano in the corner.) Only nonfiction books are read. “I really don’t like fiction,” Mr. Fisher said. “It’s just not my style. I read it occasionally, but it doesn’t really interest me.”
Mr. Fisher often gets the books’ authors to pay a visit to the book club to discuss their books, and usually he invites them back as members. Michael Gross joined after the club read 740 Park, as did Karen Abbott after the club read her book Sin in the Second City, about sisters who ran a Chicago bordello in the early 1900s. “Most authors have been flattered,” Mr. Fisher said. “They rather like the chance to hear what people in a small book club say.” Gay and Nan Talese are on Mr. Fisher’s e-mail list because they are personal friends, though they do not usually attend.
“We have a no-bullshit rule,” Mr. Fisher told The Observer. “You can come if you haven’t read the book, but you can’t bullshit.” Mr. Fisher is on the library committee at the University Club, where he likes to play squash and backgammon. At the meeting the other evening was a new member, Peter Otto, who is one of Mr. Fisher’s backgammon and squash sparring partners. Before the others arrived, Mr. Otto and Mr. Fisher discussed the pro-am (professional-amateur) tournament taking place at the club. Squash doubles, they told me, is quite challenging.
The book under discussion that night was Einstein: His Life and Universe, by former Time managing editor (and current columnist) Walter Isaacson. Mr. Isaacson was, sadly, out of the country, although Mr. Fisher said he had kindly responded to e-mails, and there had been a brief, though ultimately unfruitful, discussion of doing some sort of book club conference call with Mr. Isaacson.
Mr. Fisher’s book club follows a rather set schedule. Members are welcome at the Fishers’ beginning at 7 o’clock, when they may have a cocktail or a glass of wine. (Jackets and bags go in the library.) By 7:30 or so, dinner—made by the Fishers’ housekeeper—is served, buffet-style, on a long table in the dining room, and then eaten on laps in the living room. The other night, there was a tasty curried chicken, macaroni and salad, and two tarts for dessert. When the grandfather clock in the corner chimes 8, it is time for the discussion to begin.
“I’m not a control freak,” Mr. Fisher said, “but I have a routine that works. It’s pleasing for me and it’s not annoying to anyone. Most book clubs meet 10 to 12 times a year. I think that’s a punishing schedule.”
The members in attendance that evening were an Upper East Side hodgepodge; they included Georgia Shreve, the poet and writer who sold her duplex penthouse in Mr. Fisher’s building for a reported $46 million in December; Mr. Gross’s wife, Barbara Hodes, who designs knitwear (Mr. Gross was attending the PEN Awards gala at the Museum of Natural History that evening); an arts and fashion writer named Marcia Sherrill; handbag designer-turned-real estate agent Carey Adina Karmel; art appraiser Catchia Goggin; and lawyer Blake Hornick, who went to overnight camp with Mr. Fisher.
“We’re very liberal about who comes,” Mr. Fisher said. “It’s usually friends of friends. We only had one guy who got kicked out. He was a lawyer we knew. Basically, the first meeting he came to, he had a list of comments about the book. It was like preparing a brief for a litigation trial. I sort of didn’t comment on it, but he got the idea that it wasn’t a great idea.