Critic, Book World

The audience for “Book Club” on Sunday night in Bethesda, Md., was not much larger than an average book club. As he entered the theater, one man looked across the sparse crowd and said, “I guess people aren’t into books anymore.”

That’s misleading on several levels. For one thing, “Book Club” came in at No. 3 this weekend at the box office, with a respectable $12 million gross. For another thing, the movie effectively spanks snobs who claim that people aren’t into books anymore.

“Book Club” is a romantic comedy about four older women who decide they’re not ready to go gentle into that good night. You’ve got to admire a rom-com that quotes Dylan Thomas, and that’s typical of this amusing lowbrow/highbrow confection.

Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen play friends who’ve been meeting every month for 40 years to talk about books — from Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” to Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” We meet them on the day they decide to read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the first book in E.L. James’s erotic trilogy. Those novels went on to sell more than 100 million copies and inspired just as many hot-and-bothered op-eds about the dire state of modern literature.

As they say in the Red Room: Just relax.

Jane Fonda in a scene from "Book Club." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Pictures via AP))

The women of “Book Club” are not unintelligent or unsophisticated. Fonda’s character runs her own luxury hotel and at one point offers a smart interpretation of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Bergen plays a federal judge who was distressed to learn that her husband didn’t know “Don Quixote.” They laugh when one of them picks “Fifty Shades of Grey” for their next meeting. It’s not that they feel handcuffed to any particular kind of literature, but they’ve heard enough about James’s BDSM blockbuster to know what they’re getting into. “We started this book club to stimulate our minds,” Bergen objects. “I’m not sure this even qualifies as a book.”

That, of course, has been the judgment handed down on popular novels — particularly novels popular with women — for centuries. It’s all part of the elaborate mechanics of shame we use to denigrate any literary pleasure that strays outside the lines. When a handsome stranger on a plane asks Keaton’s character what she’s reading, she claims it’s “Moby Dick,” which is 50 shades of ironic.

Older women interested in sex have been the butt of derisive humor at least since Chaucer, but “Book Club” mostly avoids those cheap shots. The women in this movie read “Fifty Shades of Grey” with a healthy range of reactions. Steenburgen’s character, trapped in a loving but sexless marriage, says, “This book has got me in a total tizzy.” Keaton rolls her eyes and mutters, “Give me a break,” before deciding, “Best book ever!” and later, “I hate this book!” Bergen, who brilliantly deconstructs the old crone stereotype, says, “I’m learning things no one my age should know about.” Fonda marks the good passages with a yellow highlighter and announces, “This book is a wake-up call!” (At 80, Fonda’s appearance is more fantastical than anything E.L. James has ever created.)

I’ve never been keen on mocking fans of certain kinds of books or noting, as too many reviewers still do, that “you’ll like this book if you like this kind of thing.” To my mind, we should judge the read, but not the reader. We can’t pick the books our inner goddess will love any more than we can pick the people we love.

I learned that lesson again in 2012 when I went to see E.L. James at a book signing at a huge two-story Barnes & Noble outside Washington. So many fans arrived that the line snaked around the store and the escalator had to be turned off. These disciplined readers came with their books — and their sex toys and even their own “Fifty Shades of Grey” jewelry. They were more fun than any readers I’ve ever seen. Did they think James was F. Scott Fitzgerald? No. They just knew they were having a blast. What’s the use in whipping up a storm of snobbery over that species of delight?

In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Helena says,

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,

Love can transpose to form and dignity.

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;

And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.

Bergen alludes to those lines during an engagement party near the end of “Book Club.” She’s right about romance. And books.

Laters, baby.

Ron Charles is the editor of Book World and host of