The First Rule of Book Club

An L.A. lit gathering so under the radar, it has no name.

alana may johnson
Alana May Johnson

In the fall of 2020, Alana May Johnson was looking for something to do. It was eight months into California’s shelter-in-place order, and Johnson, a Los Angeles librarian, decided to start a book club she describes as her “pandemic boredom project.”

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

“We were all pretty fed up by that point, going stir-crazy, and so it became a fun thing, a way to connect with people and talk to more people about books,” says Johnson.

Two and a half years later, Johnson’s still-unnamed book club has grown to 49 members. They discuss titles like Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter and Rachel Monroe’s Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession over direct message on Twitter, sharing insights, excerpts, and the occasional pet picture. There is no schedule, with members chatting whenever they have time—or whenever they finish reading the book, for those avoiding spoilers. When the conversation is at its peak, messages number in the triple digits, but the largely Gen Z and millennial members easily handle the banter that older readers might consider overwhelming, scrolling at their leisure and ignoring the chatter when they have to. Johnson says there’s interest in Zoom meetings, but she hasn’t gone there yet.

Starting a book club came naturally to Johnson, who works at Los Angeles’s Silver Lake Branch Library. For years, her friends looked to her for book recommendations across multiple genres. “I just force my taste on everyone. That’s really what it’s all about,” she says with a laugh.

“She’s just this wealth of information,” says book club member Natalie Lerner, a visual artist in Brooklyn. “She’s an avid sponge of culture and literature.”

There are no set themes or genres for the club. Selections reflect Johnson’s taste, which ranges wildly, from Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls to Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South. Johnson prefers books by queer writers, including Eve Babitz (Slow Days, Fast Company—a title that inspired Johnson’s Twitter handle), Iris Murdoch (A Severed Head), Cookie Mueller (Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black), Hilton Als (The Women), and Gary Indiana (Three Month Fever: The Andrew Cunanan Story, Resentment).

“I just don’t read a ton of straight white dudes,” Johnson says, joking that she read enough of them while earning her BA in English literature from San Francisco State University. (Johnson also holds a master’s of library and information science from San José State University.)

“There’s almost three different types of things I get from it,” says book club member Leo Kelly, who works with software developers in Portland, Oregon. There are books he’s never heard of before that end up being an incredible read, like Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure; titles he’s known about for years and never got the chance to read, like Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain; and titles he hasn’t read from authors he’s already enjoyed, like Graham Greene’s The Comedians. Lerner adds, “I’ve found so many authors in the past, like, year and a half that I would have never touched.”

Johnson picks each title herself, some coming to her seemingly out of nowhere. “I’ll be watching something on TV and all of a sudden, just the next six titles just pop into my head and I just write it on my notes app,” she says.

Members are given two choices each month, and once they decide on which book to read, Johnson buys copies from Skylight Books and ships copies to her members, who pay about $75 every three months to cover the cost of the books and postage. Johnson says she spends around 20 hours a month on club admin and just breaks even.

There is no website, sign-up page, newsletter, or even designated social media account for Johnson’s club. New members are accepted through Johnson’s Twitter account and can Venmo her for the buying and shipping costs to unlock membership for the next three months.

For April, members are choosing between Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin, and The End of Vandalism, by Tom Drury; for May, it’s a choice between Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox, and Nobody Move, by Denis Johnson.

Johnson says she’s not looking to break into the world of BookTokers and litfluencers. “I really didn’t start it with a bigger picture in mind,” she insists. “The goal is mostly to get people to read some lesser-known writers whose work I admire.”•

Elizabeth Casillas is Alta Journal’s editorial assistant.
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