I have had an essay in progress for some years now, with the working title “Book Club Refugee.” It begins to recount the amazing number of book clubs I have attended, at least briefly, since leaving full-time employment in 1996 and moving to serial small university towns with my growing family.
I do hope I’ll finish the essay eventually. Some of the memories are just painful—the play group from hell that morphed into the book group from hell where the alpha women allowed 15 minutes max of touching on the book before launching into vicious gossip; the university women’s book club that picked a whole year’s slate by a committee of long-time members (who wouldn’t allow newer members to speak); several groups of lovely, earnest, intimate women where I just couldn’t break in.
But some of the memories are priceless treasures. The group I found just before I moved to Bloomington looked to be an excellent fit, with a mix of serious readers and hip professors who genuinely wanted to discuss the chosen selections. The second evening I attended, just as I learned I would be moving, we discussed a fabulous book in a secluded backyard hot tub with glasses of excellent chardonnay and candles balanced on the surrounding ledges, as huge, airy snowflakes drifted down around us in a mild New England evening.
I also attended unbelievably rich, public “Author Events” at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA, a second-generation family-owned bookstore just across Route 116 from Mount Holyoke College; it remains a reader’s paradise, with two floors of well-selected books, cards, and bibliophile paraphernalia, and a full slate of monthly author and reader events. There I, along with 11 other fortunate and avid readers who signed up, got to discuss their books with such authors as Alice McDermott, Ruth Ozeki, Jane Smiley, and others. (I coined the name “Book Club Refugees” for the “club” of two, myself and my dear friend Ellen, so that we could attend an evening event limited to book clubs only.) In those intimate conversations with authors, I learned so much about the assumptions I bring to a text, and how little those assumptions sometimes have to do with the writing decisions made by a contemporary author, among other things.
Here in Bloomington, I am a devoted member of the WWF(a)C Book Club that meets third Thursdays over tea and optional sack lunch at the Poplar Grove Schoolhouse. I cannot say enough about this ambitious, articulate, and thoughtful group of readers. We are all serious, but not humorless, about our reading, and discussion of the selections is always primary. A group of some 10 regulars, most with some connection to the WWF(a)C program, we are led by a wise and dedicated facilitator who usually reads the books at least twice and never fails to challenge us with thought-provoking questions and considerations. In recent months, we have chosen a set of three books that all bear on African American history: James McBride’s haunting “Song Yet Sung,” a tale of escaped slaves in pre-Civil War Maryland, Jon Clinch’s gorgeous and grisly imagining of Huckleberry Finn’s Pap “Finn,” and next month, Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.” We are all looking forward to hearing James McBride speak in Bloomington as a guest of the Friends of the Monroe County Library on November 12.
Each of us has our own history of reading, alone, with friends and partners, as well as in groups, and surely each of us has our own experiences of the pleasures and perils of shared reading with others. Share some of yours! Or come share ours with us!
Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse