All Male Bobos Book Club Members Share Stories – And Themselves
The Bobos book club can’t help but call attention to itself.
For starters, the club’s 14 members belie their well-educated, professionally accomplished backgrounds by calling themselves Bobos. Even club founder Phil Smith, a 67-year-old retired advertising creative director and writer, concedes that the offbeat sobriquet may call to mind “nuts” or “clowns,” although that’s hardly the intent.
The Bobos are also a relatively rare bunch in a literary world where twice as many women than men are believed to participate in book clubs. Still, the all-male Bobos, ranging in age from late forties to early seventies, relish the experience of reading a different noteworthy novel every two months and then gathering to consider its merits, flaws and meanings over an evening of great food and garrulous friendship.
Then there are the Bobos’ arguably amusing rules that, if only for show, communicate plenty of hairy-chested attitude: No “Oprah” books. No books with raised (embossed) titles on the cover. No discussing relationships during meetings.
“I don’t want to sound too male-macho-masculine,” Smith says. “But I wanted to be in a group of guys that were smarter than I was, that could digest literature and kind of expose those ‘a-ha’ moments. And all these guys can bring to the table insights into a book that just make me go, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’”
Learning from Fiction
Smith formed his curious squad of vanguard fiction fans shortly after he and his wife, Rebecca Smith (a “KC Studio” contributor), moved to Kansas City more than 15 years ago. He borrowed the club’s name from commentator David Brooks’ 2000 non-fiction tome, “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There.” The term Bobos — a blending of bourgeois and bohemian — embodied the 1990s rise of affluent Americans who held traditional capitalistic values as well as more progressive leanings rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s and ’70s.
Or to put it another way: Bobos like the nice stuff that their money can buy, but they also want to kiss the sky. That existential tension — perhaps even contradiction — propels Smith and his relatively comfortable fraternity into diligently turning the pages of one intellectually challenging novel after another.
“We are all within a couple decades of the same age and we are mostly professional white males, so there is a kind of narrowness,” acknowledges 60-year-old Bobo and photographer Vernon Leat. “But we’re benevolent. We’re searching. We’re looking for answers. And we learn that there are different answers for different times and different problems.
“Books can reveal a lot of solutions that you can’t get just walking through life. People who just read newspapers or magazines or their Facebook feed are missing out on a lot. And we don’t miss out on that. We get all of the talent and skill that novelists can bring to literature.”
Bobos Biggest Hits
Through the years, the Bobos book club has read, discussed and graded more than 100 novels selected by individual members. Without referring to an official club spreadsheet — indeed, one exists — it might be difficult to recollect them all. Yet get a few Bobos together and a few titles quickly generate collective praise.
There’s “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” a 1985 historical fantasy by German author Patrick Suskind, which grippingly details the activities of a serial killer in 19th-century France. “It reminded me in many ways of “Moby Dick,” which is also a huge favorite of mine,” Leat says. “There’s a little bit of the whaling manual in “Perfume” — you learn how perfume is made, how it’s distilled…and how criminals get caught.”
There’s “Flight Behavior,” a 2012 novel by Barbara Kingsolver that ingeniously intertwines the tale of an unhappy rural housewife with a looming ecological disaster. “It worked in every aspect,” Smith says. “The characters were brilliantly realized and the situation, which dealt with the Monarch butterfly, is woven into this environmental story. It was done so realistically and tastefully.”
There’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner that reveals the terrible impact of the police state on personal identity. “It opened my eyes to a world that I know nothing about in North Korea,” says Bobo and former high-school French teacher Harlan Locke, 66. “It showed just how crazy it can get there and how people can be conflicted in their feelings and in their jobs. It was engrossing on a lot of levels.”
Another club favorite, J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” published in 1999, proved especially affecting for Bobo Dennis Bryant, 72, a retired owner of a national executive search firm.
“‘Disgrace’ is my book,” Bryant says. “I was in my late fifties when I read it, and it’s about an English professor in his late fifties who had an affair with one of his students and found out that that was inappropriate — even though she was very willing and there weren’t any kind of tricks around it.
“I’ve been married 50 years, but it was kind of interesting thinking that it’s no longer appropriate for me to be with a woman like that. Of course, it was never appropriate once I got married. But I shouldn’t even be thinking that somebody of that age would be thinking of me. I identified with the character.”
The Bobos share more than opinions about books with each other. They share of themselves.
“The books are important, but it’s grown beyond that,” Bryant says. “When you have men who have talked with each other for 15 years every other month, we can’t wait to hear what’s happened since the last time we met. During that time, kids have grown up and all sorts of issues have happened. If someone loses a parent, we talk about it. Everybody listens and comments. There’s a lot of depth here. And it’s just fascinating that we really do care for each other.”
“These guys helped me move when I got divorced,” says Bobo Mark Logan, 52, an innovation executive for an advertising agency. “These guys are my friends.”
The bond is fortified at club meetings, whether at a favorite restaurant or around a member’s home dining room table. The environment plays a role in maintaining the transcendent connection, says 58-year-old Bobo and documentary filmmaker David Buck.
“It’s the difference between sitting shoulder to shoulder with someone at a sporting event or a concert and sitting and facing someone,” Buck says. “We’re a lot more across-the-table in terms of our book club settings.”
“The meetings are kind of controlled chaos, because we discuss the book and that’s a free-for-all,” says Bobo Mike Coons, 48, a planner for an industrial supply company. “But then, when we discuss just what’s going on in our lives, it’s definitely like going around the circle.”
“I’ve listened to them from afar,” says Coons’ wife and hair salon owner, Crissy Sciolaro, who bakes much-enjoyed desserts for every Bobos confab. “I don’t get in the room, unless I’m serving some food, but I love the way the Bobos conduct their meetings. They’re super-respectful of each other. They talk about personal gains and interesting things that they’ve done.”
Is it OK with her that the Bobos are an all-guy thing?
“It is OK with me, and I’m a super-feminist,” Sciolaro says. “And my husband’s even more of a feminist than I am. You can expect different things from different age groups and these guys are very enlightened for their age.”
Shopping the Bobos
Well into their second decade, the Bobos have capped their membership at 14 fellows, with a typical headcount of 10 to 12 attending each bimonthly meeting.
The problem has become space, Smith says. Often, the group struggles to find a place where it can meet in the round, including restaurants that seldom provide an opportunity for members to easily hear and be heard by each other. And so the Bobos are wondering if there might be another way.
“Would there be any interest in having the Bobos at homes of couples or singles who can accommodate a group our size?” Smith ponders. “Hosts must want to read the book selection and join in the discussion. We would bring in the food and drink, as we always do. This could work, maybe, with one or two additional people. Or maybe it’s just a flawed idea.”
Either way, you’ve got to hand it to the Bobos for being willing to change things up. Imagine a different woman or two taking part in subsequent Bobos book club discussions. Gosh, what would Oprah think?
“I always look for the intention in people,” says Bobos believer Sciolaro. “Above all else, the intention of these guys is to grow. And that’s awesome.”