Reading Between Their Lives The Book On Book Clubs.

Posted: July 20, 1997

Call it revenge of the bookworms.

An activity as solitary as reading and a need as basic as conversation have combined to form one of the more enduring social activities of our time: the book club.

Oprah Winfrey's may be the most publicized of communal reading groups these days - a book can become a best-seller overnight just through mention on her TV talk show - but it certainly wasn't the first.

Chain bookstores sponsor groups that meet on the premises or allow customers to assemble their own gatherings at the store.

Regular folk go underground, getting together groups of friends and neighbors to read and discuss books on a regular basis - and to learn about each other in the process.

More recently, electronic book clubs have been popping up on the World Wide Web.

More than just social events, though, book clubs serve as a repository for the ideas, frustrations and revelations that spill out from the white pages into the lives of readers.

``How many times do you read a book and it's a great book and there's no one to talk to about it?'' said book-club leader Tahitia Timmons.

* On a recent rainy evening, about 15 people formed a tight circle in the Burlington County Library's storytelling room to discuss A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.

The Burlington County reading group was the brainchild of Adam Travia, 21, who used to run book clubs at the Marlton Barnes & Noble. The previous week, at his suggestion, the group watched a video of Shakespeare's King Lear, which many say was a model for Smiley's book.

A Thousand Acres deals with inheritance, land rights, family cruelty and incest, and that provoked a number of heated opinions and conflicting allegiances to the characters.

Several group members shared their experiences of having divided up land after a parent had died. Rosella Pyle, for instance, told the group of the bitterness and jealousy within her family in the last year.

``Seeing this woman survive all this,'' Pyle said of a character in the book, ``I thought: I should have read this last year.''

Others reacted on a simpler level.

``I liked it, but I got a little tired of details of hog farming,'' said Rose Tangredi, 75, who also belongs to a seniors reading group.

Travia goaded the group with questions he had prepared ahead of time, many of them gleaned off the Web sites of publishing houses. In general, he tries to pick titles that will pique the public's interest. He launched the group with The English Patient after the movie version won several Oscars.

``Some work; some don't,'' he said of his choices. ``By `work,' I mean if you get through it, you have something to talk about: Did it make you think about something other than the story?''

Nevertheless, he warns people not to get too emotional about a book's content, to avoid hurt feelings. His advice: ``If you can't take the heat, leave.''

But over time, he has noticed, group members who begin as strangers start to feel more comfortable and become more generous with personal insights.

``As people either fall off or keep coming, you get a core group that knows each other,'' he said.

It was exactly such camaraderie that Patty Hill, 56, was hoping to find when she joined the library group last year.

``When you get to be my age and the kids move away, you prepare for emptiness,'' Hill said. ``You find your friends move away and you don't find friends as easily. So I decided I wanted to find something for me.''

* More formal than chitchat but more casual than a college English course, book clubs seem to tap into the human need to express oneself. Like movies, books are places where new thoughts fester. Book clubs are where those thoughts are released.

``I thought this was an out. You have to go out with other people, or you are going to forget the English language,'' said Pyle, 58, a full-time grandmother of young children who explained that she missed grown-up conversation.

Publishing houses have gone online with ready-made discussion questions for book clubs. Some have sponsored their own online book clubs.

And individual book lovers, too, have started online clubs, attracting comments that range from cryptic to substantial. The Great Books Foundation, with chapters across the country, helps readers find each other for discussions of the classics through Web sites and library networks.

Even bookstores are tapping into the social urges of their reading customers. At the entrance of the Borders Books and Music in Marlton, for example, fliers advertise Italo Calvino's Baron in the Trees, this month's in-store selection for its general-literature book group.

Borders outreach director Karen Landers said the store was trying to bring in, and cater to, a literary crowd.

``People in the community look to our store as a source, as an authority on literature and reading in general,'' Landers said. ``They want people to make recommendations about things they would never read on their own.''

She added that the store tends to sell about 75 copies of its book-club selections a month, even though only about 25 people come to most of the meetings.

Every month, Borders has four reading groups: general contemporary literature, gay and lesbian themes, senior-citizen reading, and - the newest - mysteries.

``I tend to start book groups cautiously,'' Landers said. ``I want to make sure they don't fall apart.''

Timmons, 23, leads Borders' monthly gay and lesbian group, which reads books by gay authors or on gay themes.

``As far as gays and lesbians go,'' Timmons said, ``aside from clubs, there's not really an area you can come out and socialize and have a common theme.''

She said the meetings tend to attract a variety of customers and perspectives, people with all types of sexual orientation. One of the group's best discussions revolved around Mel White's Stranger at the Gate, a nonfiction book about a gay man who used to write speeches for the religious right.

``It was really interesting how angry people were at him,'' said Timmons, noting that there was a particularly good turnout for the discussion. ``Whenever we do anything religious, there's a big group.''

She recalled canceling a discussion of one book, Larry Kramer's Faggots, which vividly describes the bathhouses of the 1970s.

``Nobody really wanted to talk about it,'' she said. ``You have to know what the limitations of your group are. People might have left feeling a little icky.''

That's not to say the group shies away from personal moments, such as the time a 17-year-old joined its discussion of Ruby Fruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown.

``It was so exciting to see how she reacted to the book,'' Timmons said. ``She said: `After I read it, I wanted to stand on a roof and say, ``I'm a lesbian, and I'm happy about it!'' ' ''

But Timmons does not encourage group therapy so much as intellectual discussion - in part, to counteract the stereotype that suburban readers only do romance novels or best-sellers.

``I guess the thinking is suburbia doesn't know a lot about literature,'' she said. ``But most of our customers are very literate.''

Still, communal reading is not for everyone. Take Linda Screech, 42, who was leafing through a Henry James novel at Borders.

``I have a very large family, and I discuss books with my family,'' Screech said. ``When push comes to shove, I probably wouldn't care to get up and go out of the house.''

Or take Elizabeth Groh, 39, a saleswoman who said she mainly reads nonfiction titles on finance, nutrition or motivational speakers.

``Most people don't want to talk to me about books that I read,'' she said.

* In this age of makeshift communities, book clubs also can turn into local institutions. One reading group in Haddonfield has survived for 25 years - with most of the original members still attending.

On a recent weekend, veteran members Jim Klein, 55, and Addy Schultz, 53, hosted the monthly meeting by their swimming pool, opened it up to children, and discussed an award-winning children's book, Walk Two Moons, by Sandra Creech.

``Even though we don't see them socially other than the book club, we still consider them family,'' Schultz said of fellow members. ``There have been a couple of divorces, and the question is: Who gets the book club?''

Julie Kligerman, 48, joined 15 years ago.

``It's a social gathering,'' she said. ``Not everyone reads the book who attends, and that's fine.''

Her husband, Jeffrey Oppenheim, said participation sometimes broke down along gender lines.

``Many times, the men don't read the books,'' he said. ``They always yak and have something to add, though. Or maybe I'm speaking for myself.''

Oppenheim, 50, said he was often grateful for the exposure to books he wouldn't otherwise read, such as one by ``a paleontologist who had some oddball notions about dinosaurs.''

But he's not willing to read just anything.

``Some of the Gothic romances,'' he said, ``I draw the line there.''

Over the years, the group - clinging to a core of about 20 people - has become more organized. Members take turns choosing books, going by alphabetical order of their first name.

``It used to be that books got picked by whoever shouted the loudest,'' Schultz said.

``Sometimes you get a book you never in your life would choose,'' Kligerman said. ``Sometimes that's really nice. But sometimes I don't read it.''

She mentioned Map of the World by Jane Hamilton, which she started reading for the club.

``The story was so sad, I couldn't stand it,'' she said. ``I felt I was going to get sick. I didn't read the book; I didn't go to the meeting. But that happens very rarely.''

As much as she enjoys hearing what others think of books, Kligerman finds it painful to be the only one who likes a book that others hate. That's what happened to her with Richard Ford's Independence Day and The Sportswriter.

``I didn't feel lukewarm about the books; I loved the books,'' she said. ''[When the others disagree] you wonder about yourself. I don't enjoy that.''

Now, she said, she doesn't even suggest those books likely to be the most meaningful to her.

``If I really wanted to read a book,'' she said, ``I'd save it just for me.''

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