The New Yorker Group: A book club for the on-the-go Washingtonian

April 20, 2011

“All I really wanted,” says Linn Meyers with exasperation, “was to hang out with my girlfriends and talk about the New Yorker.”

The Washington artist explains. “I was in a book club,” she says with a shrug that suggests even the memory is exhausting, “and I was devoting a lot of time to books I felt ripped off by.”

She’s small, with short black hair and a way with an F-bomb. “The women in my group were wonderful, but it’s not like it’s some big [expletive] secret.” She rattles off the way book clubs work: “You read the book and you go to the meeting and you hope someone likes it and someone else doesn’t, so you can have a debate. But that’s a lot of investment! We’re all really busy!”

And meanwhile, other reading material was piling up. “It’s pretty common that someone brings up an article from the New Yorker, and the response is aw, damn, that’s sitting on my nightstand,” she says.

It was in 2009, Meyers remembers, that she complained to her friend Andrea Evers that someone ought to organize a New Yorker club. So Andrea did. The first meeting of the New Yorker Group was at Andrea’s house. The women ate couscous and discussed an article about Aderall and other “neuro-enhancing” drugs — a topic of particular interest to the kind of overbooked and overworked women who schedule a get-together to make themselves read the magazine they wish they were reading already.

Since then, the group has met every month (or so), discussing two articles (or so), talking for two hours (or so). The guest list has fluctuated, but a few things remain constant: Salad from Linn, good wine and and the heady pleasure of brainy conversation with clever friends. And, of course, the never-ending flow of New Yorkers, arriving in the mailbox each week like clockwork.

“I don’t want to talk about the people of Sri Lanka while I’m eating,” Andrea says.

“Oh, they can’t hear,” replies graphic designer Kelli Quinn, sitting across the table.

She and Andrea met four years ago at a dog park. Five women have joined them at Andrea’s house in Kalorama Triangle. On the agenda tonight are Jon Lee Anderson’s reporting from the Sri Lankan civil war and Peter Hessler’s profile of a Peace Corps fundraiser. “And, yes, I know the Scientology article was really good,” Andrea e-mailed beforehand, “so we can talk about it for a minute. A MINUTE.”

In the warmly lighted dining room, the seven sip wine and eat bake-your-own pizza and arugula salad, surrounded by the kind of big, bold contemporary art that Andrea, a real-estate agent, presumably demands her staging clients remove from their own walls.

“God love him, he’s got so much energy,” says Andrea about ambitious young Peace Corps advocate Rajeev Goyal. “I would never be able to put that much of my energy into something like that.” She’s the de facto leader of the discussion — in part because it’s her house, but also because her Realtor’s distaste for space left empty extends to conversations.

“That’s because we all know what the real world is like,” says Kelly Vrana, a recruiter for a federal contractor. “We’re too experienced.” She flips through her copy of the magazine, one of many scattered around the table.

“Or is that fatigue?” Andrea laughs.

“I prefer to call it wisdom,” says consultant Kathryn Kross delicately.

A question about the members’ ages leads to a prolonged negotiation, but most eventually agree that they’re in their 40s. “Should I say I’m 70, maybe?” muses Linn. “So people think I look great?”

“Good idea,” laughs Kathryn. A longtime news producer, with experience at CNN and “Nightline,” she’s awfully poised and confident for someone attending her first reading-group meeting with women she knows only a little. The other women wear black; she’s in power red.

As with every book club, each participant speaks from her own context. Shar Taylor, a VP of development at the National Building Museum, talks about the challenges of international development, and psychotherapist Nanci Brown wonders whether it’s narcissism that drives Rajeev.

“But there’s a greater problem here,” Shar points out. “The reason there’s a profile of him in the New Yorker is that there’s such a vacuum of leadership at the Peace Corps.”

“I forgot the Peace Corps was still around,” confides Andrea to her end of the table.

“It should probably be a nonprofit,” Shar continues, “with designated federal funds so they could foster their own alumni association and be motivated to fundraise.”

Everyone nods and takes a sip of wine.

How many issues of the New Yorker are stacked on your bedside table?

Let’s just say there are five. And let’s just say that the oldest is from July 20, 2009, and appears to have been abandoned on Page 59, in the middle of Evan Osnos’s 6,100-word profile of heroic Chinese newspaper editor Hu Shuli. How does that make you feel?

No judgment! Sometimes we fall short of our best selves. The person we wish to be is often an unreachable goal, even if all we want to be is someone who reads every issue of the New Yorker. Someone who, at a cocktail party, hears a mention of civil rights in China and says, “Well, of course, there’s Hu Shuli, editor of Caijing, who’s known by her colleagues as the country’s ‘avenging angel,’ ” and everyone nods with jaws agape, and later you let slip that you won the caption contest.

But it’s a busy world, and we are all busy people. Washington is a city of busy people. That client needs just one last pep talk. That partner demands another status conference. And all those episodes of “Downton Abbey” on the DVR aren’t going to watch themselves. New Yorker mascot Eustace Tilly and his minions are slaving away every week at 4 Times Square to create a perfect magazine; down here in Washington, who has time to read it?

Andrea spent time in Sri Lanka last year, accompanying her husband on business. “Did you ride an elephant?” asks Nanci.

“No, it turns out that’s cheesy,” says Andrea.

Jon Lee Anderson’s epic dispatch tells the story of the brutal last days of the Sri Lankan civil war, in which the Sinhalese army isolated the Tamil Tigers rebels on a sliver of beach and eradicated them — the final bloodbath of a 27-year nightmare in which thousands of innocents were killed by both sides. The article describes the scorched-earth campaign the Sinhalese undertook to rid their country of the rebels — one that, despite its disregard for traditional rules of combat, is reportedly admired by military leaders around the world.

Andrea puts down her wine and clears her throat. “So I know this is a terrible thing to say in many ways,” she prefaces, “but reading this article, and thinking about our own struggles with terrorism, I just felt like, well, they got it done. They got rid of the rebels. They ended the civil war.”

Across the table, Kelli narrows her eyes. “Really,” she says. “And that’s okay with you?”

“The Tamil Tigers are not innocent,” replies Andrea. “How are you going to stop them?”

“Killing them all is the answer?”

“They’re terrorists!” Andrea says.

“They didn’t start out as terrorists!”

“They invented suicide bombing!”

From the end of the table, Shar interjects. “Are all civil wars to be settled by killing everybody?”

“It works,” Andrea replies grimly.

“Yeah, genocide works,” Linn deadpans. Andrea winces, and Linn opens herself up a bit. “Look, it’s just important that we understand where you’re coming from.”

“Everyone I saw — ”

“You’re not seriously — ”

Andrea whirls to face her interrupter. “Kelli, just listen before you talk!”

Kelli puts up her hands — okay, okay. Andrea takes a deep breath. “Everyone I saw in Sri Lanka was so happy the war was over.”

Kelli can’t hold back any longer. “Everyone you saw was Sinhalese!”

Andrea shakes her head. “I met lots of Tamils working on the tea plantations.”

“Oh God,” Kelli says. “You sound so parochial. ‘The plantations’?”

“They’re not slaves, Kelli. They’ve worked there for generations. They get paid.”

“Come on.”

“You act like they were hanging on ropes!”

Kelli roars, “They were!”

“You’re yelling your head off!”

A deep breath works its way around the table. It’s nerve-racking for everyone, watching these two friends argue, but thrilling, too: How often do we get to be passionate about the issues? How often, really, do we roar? Cocktail-party chatter, even book club discussions — these so often feel like grown-ups play-acting at passion. But tonight at the New Yorker Group, no one is pretending to care.

According to the circulation department, 50,000 copies of the New Yorker make their way to the Washington area each week. By way of comparison, similar-size metro areas Atlanta and Houston receive 11,600 and 7,500 copies, respectively. In fact, Washington’s rate of 47 households per issue ranks seventh among 200 metropolitan areas the magazine tracks. The national champ in this unscientific but fascinating metric — let’s call it HpET, or Households per Eustace Tilly — is Charlottesville, where a teensy and academic-heavy population comes in at 30 HpET. In Gotham itself, one New Yorker serves 39 households of actual New Yorkers. (Last place goes to Albany, Ga., where a mere 122 New Yorkers are distributed to a community of 158,000 households, for an HpET of 1,295.)

What role does the magazine have in the lives of Washingtonians? “When you have the luxury to read things beyond first news, it’s a food group for a curious mind,” says Kathryn.

None of the group members seem to fetishize the magazine’s history, every em-dash and diaresis, the way so many do, but they appreciate the rare long view in the midst of lives lived with tunnel vision. Especially in Washington, a city prone to bogging down in the nuts and bolts of regulation, legislation and litigation.

The magazine seems “a little bit removed from Washington,” says Andrea, “offering a more intellectual conversation about the city — something above politics.”

For Shar, the magazine’s a litmus test. “There are lots of smart people in Washington,” she says, “but the people that read the New Yorker — it means that they also care about culture and art as well as politics.” She hastens to add, “Not that there’s anything wrong with politics.”

“Let’s step back from Sri Lanka,” suggests Shar, the peacemaker. “What other civil wars can we think of that have had outcomes we would view as successful?” She mentions Northern Ireland. Growing up in England in the 1970s, she says, you could never have imagined a political solution. But diplomacy, in the end, won the day — without the kind of bulldozing the Sinhalese delivered to the Tamils.

Andrea looks stricken at her inability to explain her feelings. “I fell in love with that country. It was beautiful, and everyone we met was so happy, and the war was so horrible, that I sort of thought: Well, do what you gotta do.” She picks up an empty bottle of wine, puts it down again. “It was 25 years, and it wasn’t getting better, it was getting worse — and the Tigers used their own people as human shields.”

With impeccable timing, Kathryn, the new member, clears the table. Nanci raises her hand. “When did they call it Ceylon?” she asks. With a laugh, everyone looks at Shar, who sighs and answers, “Before they achieved independence from Great Britain, early ’70s.”

“I didn’t mean for this to be therapy,” Andrea says in a smaller voice than before. “I sort of thought you would all agree with me.” She stands up abruptly and goes into the kitchen.

“These cupcakes are so good, they’re giving me pimples,” Nanci says.

“What happened to your gluten-free thing, your diet?” Linn asks.

“It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle,” Nanci replies.

Andrea comes back into the dining room and stands at the head of the table. Holding a bottle of wine under her arm, she twists a corkscrew. “I’m sorry, everyone,” she says. “Maybe I just didn’t expect better from two nations in a brutal war. Maybe I didn’t expect better from humanity. I guess that’s sad.” She looks up at the table for a response.

“That is sad,” Kelli says.

With a corky thunk, Andrea pulls the wine opener free. “Okay,” she says heavily.

After the tumult of the Sri Lanka discussion, it’s a relief to move on to something on which everyone can agree: Scientology. Not everyone has gotten through Lawrence Wright’s epic 26-page takedown of the religion, but everyone thinks it seems loop-de-loo crazy. “Shouldn’t the part where they tell you to break away from your parents be a red flag?” Nanci asks.

“Well, they separate you and change the way they think,” Kathryn replies. “It’s just like they say, in any group — ”

“Just like the New Yorker Group!” Linn cackles, wiggling her fingers magically.

“Speaking of Scientology,” Nanci says, “you know who isn’t one? Tina Fey.” More unanimity: Tina Fey is awesome in general, and her lively piece about parenting and Hollywood is awesome in particular.

“You read this and you want her to be your friend,” Andrea marvels.

“Can she join the New Yorker Group?” Nanci asks.

“She doesn’t have time,” says Kelli. She and Andrea have already moved past their argument, it seems, and soon they’re cheerfully helping each other do dishes in the kitchen.

How would Tina Fey get into the New Yorker Group? Figuring out whom to invite can be tricky; you need someone with the right attitude. “I told a friend of mine about the New Yorker Group and she said, ‘Oh, that sounds obnoxious,’” Linn says. “And it does sound obnoxious! That’s why we should invite her in!”

Nanci has someone she likes, “so smart and really lovely,” from Portugal.

“Is she petite and beautiful?” Linn cracks. “Then, no.”

“Oh, you would love her,” Nanci says. “She’s just like us.”

“But do we want people who are like us?” Linn asks.

“What is this ‘like us’?” demands Kelly. “We’re all different people.”

Shar laughs. “We might be different people,” she says, “but we’re still a demographic.”

Three of the seven women are married; two have kids; two are writers. Most live in the District. Five of the women subscribe to the print edition of New Yorker. One subscribes on her iPad. One subscribes to both. Would they ever welcome a guy into the group? “No way,” say some. “Why not?” ask others. “If he’s hot and single and good,” Kelly says, “then, yes, we would welcome a guy.” Everyone laughs.

The women wipe spills, wrap up leftovers, needle each other enjoyably. Someone complains about her husband, and everyone groans. “Night’s over,” Andrea laughs.

Soon the New Yorker Group will head off into the night. Andrea has 74 listings to sell, including a $3 million seven-bedroom in Chevy Chase. Kathryn is building an entire communications structure for a think tank from scratch. Linn has to travel to Albuquerque to work with a master printmaker on a commission for the Phillips Collection.

And 50,000 more New Yorkers will arrive in the Washington area next week — just a drop in the flood of information we cope with every day; just one of the intellectual pleasures we deny ourselves in the name of momentum.

With the New Yorker Club, these women have found a way, even briefly, to keep their heads above water. To breathe, and talk, and drink wine, just for a night — and avoid subjecting their treasured magazines to the fate so many have suffered before them.

“There’s a particular feeling of defeat when you throw a pile of unread New Yorkers away,” says Kathryn.

Andrea nods, ruefully. “Time never moves so fast as when you subscribe to the New Yorker.”

Kois is a freelance writer.

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