Book Review: The Art of Gathering
The Art of Gathering is a book about how to make your gatherings better.
What is a gathering, you may ask? Surprisingly, The Art of Gathering offers only a vague answer: gathering is “the conscious bringing together of people for a reason.” Even if you’re willing to overlook the awkward way this is phrased (you, a simp, may like bringing people together, but I, an intellectual, prefer the bringing together of people), this definition is frustratingly broad. Any time two or more people are together and it wasn’t an accident, you’ve got a gathering.
Example gatherings cited in the book include dinner parties, raves, weddings, corporate retreats, conferences, funerals, classrooms, merger talks between two companies, bar mitzvahs, sex parties, theatrical performances, baby showers, and the daily meeting at The New York Times where they decide what goes on the front page—among many others.
Can you make hanging out with your friends more fun by implementing techniques used by the TED conference? Is it really possible that the author of this book, a Brooklyn millennial writing in 2018, actually thought TED was such a compelling example that she had to cite it not once but four times? In an attempt to find out, I consciously gathered on my couch with The Art of Gathering, a notebook, and a pen.
I wasn’t just drawn to The Art of Gathering because I’m trying to do more book reviews in this newsletter and I wanted to start with something that, unlike most of my nonfiction choices, was under 700 pages. I was also drawn to it because I believe in what I had gathered (get it) was its fundamental premise: that socializing can be improved by doing it more intentionally. I’m one of the main event organizers within my friend group, and I’ve always tried to make my “gatherings” (oof, it’s gonna be hard to keep using that term without mocking it) more than just hanging out. I’ve even spent the past few years throwing an adult summer camp for my extended social circle, which I’m pretty sure is a more on-point example of a gathering than a corporate merger discussion.
My preexisting agreement with this book’s main message may have actually made me an unsympathetic reviewer, as I found much of it obvious. As with most business books (a category this book definitely fits with aesthetically, even if it’s not primarily about business), the important parts of The Art of Gathering are extremely simple and could be conveyed in around 10% as many words as are in the book. If this book were the Torah and I, like the Talmudic rabbi Hillel, were challenged to summarize the whole thing while standing on one foot, I would do so as follows: “Embrace your authority as host. The rest is commentary.”
Many of the gathering pathologies outlined in the book share a common underlying factor: the host’s attempt to be “chill” instead of owning their power over their event. These pathologies include:
Not committing to, and/or communicating, a clear purpose for your event
Not being strict with your guest list/failing to exclude the wrong people
Not selecting the right physical environment for your gathering
Not stepping up throughout the event to guide its progress
Allowing your guests to socialize exclusively with their existing friends instead of forcibly connecting them with new people
Not enforcing clear rules for your event
…and so on
But actually, argues The Art of Gathering, trying to be chill is bad. When you relinquish your power over your gathering, the result isn’t a magical utopia where everyone’s equal—the result is either that other, worse people step in to fill the leadership void, or that everyone falls back on lowest-common-denominator social mores. In other words, either the loudest and most annoying person dominates your dinner party, or everyone talks about what they do for work.
The best gatherings have a unique point of view and are a little weird—but that requires their hosts to lean into their power, and to risk the potential mockery that comes from throwing a lame event. If you throw a party that sucks because it’s generic, people might be disappointed, but they won’t make fun of you. But if you throw a party that sucks because you took a big swing and missed, mockery may ensue. Nonetheless, it’s the big swings that result in the most memorable gatherings.
I’m fully on board with this advice. But my skepticism of The Art of Gathering as a book is that I don’t think the main thing preventing people from having better gatherings is a lack of knowledge about how to do so. Rather, it’s the fear and anxiety (not to mention the sheer amount of work) that hosting such a gathering requires.
Just as one can read a book about attachment theory and gain a much deeper understanding of their interpersonal issues, but find themselves no better at maintaining their actual relationships, so can one read The Art of Gathering and understand why their gatherings are subpar, but still not come any closer to throwing better ones. If you’re lucky, a book like this can be a small nudge in the right direction, but it’s unlikely to ever be more.
The criticism above would apply to any book about gatherings. Here’s my issue with this book specifically: its entire reason for being is to help you make your gatherings more fun, but it isn’t very fun to read. It’s written in the overly-earnest tone of a teacher’s pet, and almost all of the gatherings cited as examples sound like the kind of thing I would make up an excuse to get out of attending. Even a too-brief mention of BDSM and the way that all event planners should take inspiration from the way kink participants construct “scenes” can’t save the book from reading like a Harvard Business Review case study on fun. At one point, the author even interviews a financial advisor named Medici (!!) and fails to make anything more than a cursory joke about it.
An anecdote near the book’s end will tell you everything you need to know about The Art of Gathering’s vibes:
When I was fifteen, my mother offered to host a weekly gathering in our basement, with me and eleven other girls from my high school, to help us think about our identity and transformation as women. She wanted to bring her own experience as an anthropologist to help us with the fraught transition we found ourselves in.
I know what you’re thinking—this is an example of how even the most well-intentioned gatherings can be ruined by the wrong choice of host, right? Or about how to delicately decline a gathering offer from someone you care about when you aren’t interested?
Nope! The author cites this as an example of one of the best gatherings she’s ever participated in. Apparently she and her eleven friends not only weren’t mortified by this event, they even wore the friendship bracelets her mother crafted for them for the rest of the school year. Perhaps most egregiously, there isn’t even an acknowledgment that this is highly atypical teenage behavior. No “I know this sounds crazy, but my mom is really cool,” or anything like that.
No matter how compelling I might find some of its advice, I can’t trust a book about gathering written by someone who thinks that spending junior year of high school discussing womanhood with your best friends and your mom is so self-evidently awesome that it needs no further explanation.
If you’re reading this review with the friendship bracelet you made with your mom wrapped tight around your wrist, then you’ll love The Art of Gathering. If you’re anyone else, you’ll still find some good stuff in this book, especially since it’s such a quick read.
But I definitely recommend skipping any page that mentions the TED conference.