Clara Silverstein writer
Before Oprah, book clubs tended to be quiet meetings of friends who liked talking about literature over homemade cookies and coffee. With uplifting discussions and guest appearances by authors, Oprah glamorized the clubs, inspiring many viewers to start their own. Though there is no official tally of book groups in Wellesley and Weston, an informal survey of local libraries and bookstores suggests a lively literary discussion scene.
“I think interest in reading groups has really burgeoned in the past five years,” said Donna Davies, adult services librarian at the Weston Public Library. “There seems to be a multitude of informal groups. It’s a nice way for people to get together and share ideas in an atmosphere that’s not threatening.”
Beyond the Oprah-imitation factor, book groups seem to be addressing a social need. At a time when daily life seems to proceed at alarming velocity, the groups make people slow down, take the time to read, and plan a night out for stimulating conversation. Many groups start informally among friends and meet in people’s homes, but an increasing number of organizations now seem to be sponsoring groups, said Judy Gelman, Needham resident and co-author of The Book Club Cookbook (Penguin, 2004), which matches books with menus. In national surveys of reading groups, she and co-author Vicki Levy Krupp have found groups forming through schools and PTAs, churches and synagogues, newcomer’s clubs, and even through common work experiences, such as the Peace Corps. Gelman said the informal groups tend to be more social, while organizations offer a more focused discussion led by a moderator.
Naturally, public libraries also sponsor reading groups, and help advise readers who come in for ideas. The Weston Public Library (www.westonlibrary.org) hosts a book discussion group, and the library director also runs a group at the town’s Council on Aging. The Wellesley Free Library (www.wellesleyfreelibrary.org) sponsors a monthly book discussion group, as well as a “Book Break” for people to talk about any book they have read. Though both libraries offer many resources for choosing books, neither keeps a list of local book groups.
If you want to start your own group, Gelman suggests having an initial meeting to set goals. What types of books do people want to read? How will you select the books? How often will you meet? Do you want a serious discussion or more social time? What kinds of food will you serve? Some groups serve nothing more than cheese, crackers and wine; others plan elaborate menus inspired by the book’s subject matter or setting (for instance, chocolate frogs and English treacle tart for a discussion of Harry Potter). How many members do you want? If the group is to meet in a private home, a membership of six to twelve seems to work well, giving everyone a chance to participate in the discussion.
Choosing the books to read might be even more challenging than setting the ground rules for the group. Some groups read exclusively fiction or non-fiction; others might only focus on something more specific, such as nineteenth-century English literature, or Pulitzer Prize winners. Wellesley resident Janet Mannheim’s group has been meeting for 16 years, though much of the membership has turned over since then. During the year, each of the 11 members takes a turn choosing a book and researching information about the author when time allows. Once a year, the members vote on their favorites from the previous year’s list, with a gag gift going to the person who chose the big loser.
Librarians often help groups in search of reading selections. The Wellesley Free Library’s web site links to on-line recommendations in a variety of genres. The Book Club Cookbook’s web site (www.bookclubcookbook.com) recommends new books, and also links groups with authors who are willing to answer questions by speaker phone. A bookstore can also be a good resource. At Wellesley Booksmith, book groups receive a discount, and can browse through special interest tables and shelves of staff picks. Dragon Books in Weston also offers a discount to groups that order five or more books at the same time. The staff informally makes suggestions to anyone who wants ideas. “For the most part, book group members tend to be women, so women’s fiction is a popular choice,” said Wellesley Booksmith book buyer Susan M. Taylor. “There are some book groups who will venture into hardcover territory, especially if a book is getting publicity or if the author has been a favorite in the past.” To aid book groups, publishers have also started printing reader guides and discussion questions in the back of books.
Serious fiction often trumps so-called “chick lit” on reading group lists. Book Club Cookbook co-author Krupp said, “Readers constantly tell us that they love books that take them to other countries or time periods, places they may never actually visit. The Poisonwood Bible is a good example of a book that is focused on the relationships between the children and the father, but the context for the book (the Congo) is exotic.”
Gelman added that global hotspots often inspire people to read related books, such as The Kite Runner (set in Afghanistan) and Reading Lolita in Tehran (set in Iran). Books with multi-layered plots, such as Atonement and The Hours, also lead to good discussions.
If nothing else, the groups promote reading, an activity that seems nearly antiquated in our Internet age. Mannheim said, “The group forces me to read books I wouldn’t necessarily pick up and read on my own. It gives me intellectual stimulation I wouldn’t get another way.”