This column is reprinted from 2002.
I seldom accept speaking engagements, but I recently got an invitation I couldn’t turn down. It was from the Men’s Book Club of Charlottesville.
Yes, you heard correctly, Oprah: a literary discussion group founded by, conducted by, and dedicated to the intellectual stimulation of ... men. I am sorry if this notion does not dovetail with some people’s image of my gender as a parliament of louts, boors and vulgarians. Wake up and smell the Kafka, ladies.
Charlottesville is nearly a three-hour drive, so I needed to time it just right. The Men’s Book Club conducts its meetings, start to finish, during halftime of “Monday Night Football.”
I was there to discuss a book I had written four years ago. The invitation was extended by the president of the club, who is, of course, a guy. I was initially worried because his name is Ashley. Worse, he had confessed that he was named after Ashley Wilkes, the character from “Gone With the Wind” who displayed all the manliness of a bra.
But I was worrying for nothing. Ashley Schauer is all guy. As soon as I arrived, he explained the guiding principle behind the Men’s Book Club’s literary selections: Since discussion is statutorily limited to 15 minutes, he said, each book must be really thin — skimmable in its entirety “over two bowel movements, max.” He’s an ophthalmologist.
In fact, most of the 10 members of the club are doctors. This unnerved me a little, since my book, which is about medicine, is written by someone who knows nothing about medicine. Some stores actually shelve it with the medical books, which is a mistake. My book is a medical book only in the sense that “Where’s Waldo?” is a detective novel.
Our discussion began with stopwatch precision, literally at the sound of a gun. Halftime. Gastroenterologist David Balaban immediately presented me with the abstract of a medical paper documenting the case of a man who, while undergoing a routine colonoscopy, exploded. The electric current from the colonoscopy snake had ignited the man’s interior gases, killing him as profoundly as if he had swallowed a cherry bomb. (The procedure has since been changed.) Surely, there is no solace to be found in such a tragic story, but I should point out that the victim was French.
I had expected to field questions about my book, but the discussion — conducted rapid-fire as people nervously eyed the TV screen for signs of a resumption of play — consisted mostly of doctors reading portions of the book aloud, and adding medical observations of their own.
Jay Scott, a University of Virginia medical school administrator, reported on the case in the hospital’s emergency room in which a head-injury victim arrived, conscious but with his head swathed in bandages. Doctors slowly unwrappped him, watching in horror as his brain meat kept peeling off and plopping onto the gurney. After a minute or two of this stomach-churning procedure, someone noticed hair under the meat. The victim’s wife explained that she had heard you were supposed to apply a steak to a wound, but she’d only had ground round.
I was hoping to hear more, but someone yelled, “No fumble! He was down on contact!” and the meeting of the Charlottesville Men’s Book Club was adjourned.
From a literary standpoint, Oprah, I can report that the Patriots won, 30-14.