March 19, 1995 in Features

Biting Into Books Book Clubs Offer Avid Readers Food For Intellectual Discussion, And Fill A Popular Social Need

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It’s a chilly evening, but the room feels cozy. Wine and coffee are flowing, flames flutter in the woodstove and a nearby table features edible treats of all shapes and tantalizing scents.

The eight women who have gathered in this comfortable Deer Park-area home drink, eat and engage in conversation, not always in that order. When they talk, they speak of careers, relationships, world affairs, the fluffy puppy that shambles in from the cold - all the minutiae that constitute their daily lives.

Gradually, they move to a low-slung coffee table set in the middle of the spacious living room. Unhurriedly, they choose places, continuing to talk as they do so.

Then they break out their books.

Excuse me? Books? Well… yes. Books. This is no mere social setting. This is another monthly session of the 92 BC book club.

Don’t act so surprised. Anymore, book clubs bring to mind that old slogan for Clorets. Remember? “Clorets is a breath mint. Clorets is a candy mint. Clorets is two mints, it’s two mints, it’s two mints in one.”

You could pose a similar scenario for book clubs: Book clubs are social and literary gatherings.

“A lot of what we do is not academic,” says Patty Gates, a member of a Spokane-based book group since 1987. “We value our social time together as much as the intellectual output that we offer each meeting.”

There is no clear way to accurately gauge the exact number of book clubs that exist in the Inland Northwest. Area bookstores receive numerous requests for such information, which has led at least one of them - Auntie’s of Spokane - to form its own reading group (held the second Tuesday of each month).

This much we know for sure: 1) An estimated 150,000 new book titles appear every year; 2) a total of 21 book clubs responded last fall to a Spokesman-Review call for sample reading lists.

But perhaps the best way to measure how many book clubs exist locally is to consider how many people you know who belong to one. Ask around and you might be surprised at the number of your friends who meet on a regular basis to discuss the great book they’ve just read.

The clubs are everywhere, and they go by a variety of names.

Gates’ group calls itself the Women’s Book Group. “No fancy names here,” she says. (The majority of these clubs involve women, but more on that aspect later.) The Flume Creek Book Club, by contrast, is named for the area in which the members live: “About 18 miles NE of Sandpoint,” writes Ann I. Clitzer, “far off the beaten track.”

Not only do the names vary, but so do the group members’ attitudes. Take the Walla Walla WBC, which Nancy Ball and Anne-Marie Schwerin explain is “short for ‘women, books and chocolate,’ or when we’re feeling mundane, ‘Women’s Book Club.”’

The group described at the opening of this story, 92 BC, is named after the auspicious occasion that occurred during its inaugural meeting: the November 1992 election of Bill Clinton.

“It was a pun,” says group cofounder Elle Weiser. “BC? Book club? Bill Clinton?”

Got it.

Weiser is a book-club veteran. She was a founding member (talking about no-nonsense names) of The Women’s Study Group back in 1982. The idea for such a group had originated with a couple of women who had moved to Spokane from Colville, location of a good little store called The Book Depot.

And very quickly the group filled two needs (two needs, two needs) in one.

The intellectual: “We’ve read some stuff that I never would have read on my own,” Weiser says. “Books that would have been difficult to read on my own.”

And the social: “These are people who we liked being with but never had a chance to get together with often because we’re always so busy,” she says.

The group couldn’t, however, fill the needs of everyone who wanted in. There just wasn’t enough room.

Experience has taught Weiser, and others, that book clubs work best when the number ranges between eight and a dozen. (At that size, the club is large enough to stimulate discussion and yet still give everyone a chance to speak out.) So when other women expressed a desire to join, Weiser said no.

At least at first.

“All these women wanted to be in a group, so I decided why not start a new one and I would help them get it going,” Weiser says. “I never intended to actually be a part of it. But the women are so great that I became a member of that group, too.”

Call it the lure of literacy.

It’s a strong call, and it attracts readers from all over the region.

Joan Tracy is a member of the Adult Book Discussion Group that meets on the fourth Tuesday night of every month at the Cheney Community Library. As an offshoot of the Friends of the Cheney Library, the group attracts as many as 25 participants to its discussions, which began about five years ago and are held in the austere setting of a library conference room.

“We have a list that is decided by committee in the spring,” Tracy says, adding that each particular meeting is led generally by the person who suggested the book.

“The person who is the discussion leader presents it in his or her own way,” she says. “We don’t have any fixed format.

” Usually, the person has read the book carefully, taken some notes and perhaps done some background research, read some reviews or found out something biographical about the author.”

Nearly everyone participates, Tracy says, “although some people would rather sit and listen.”

And, she adds, “We’re always done by 9.”

Gates’ group has no other affiliation than the network of friends who founded it.

“Another woman (Melanie Jablonsky) and myself were just talking one day about the idea,” Gates explains. “We both loved to read and we thought, ‘We can do that,’ and so we just called a few of our best friends and that’s how it happened.”

Organizational responsibilities shift among the group’s 10 members, just as the monthly meetings rotate among the members’ houses.

“We have a secretary, and she is in charge of keeping us on track,” Gates says. “And whoever is hosting the meeting at their house is in charge of choosing the next book and facilitating the discussion.”

The discussions are informal if serious-minded.

“We don’t have a strict format,” she says, “though we usually begin our evening by talking about the book. We don’t just chat for an hour and then get around to it. We start with a book discussion, and about half the time the hostess-slash-book chooser has provided either handouts or at least copies of reviews about the book.

“It’s very loose. And everybody just kind of chimes in, some more than others, depending on the book.”

As with all groups, the reading list invariably reflects the interests of its members.

Though things have now changed, Weiser’s Women’s Study Group started out reading only books written by women.

Laurie Otteson’s club, which was formed in 1985, is a Christian-based group that reads, she says, “everything from science fiction to self-help books”; all selections, however, tend to tackle important issues, everything from Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind.”

Serious material is a byword among most reading groups.

“We decided to go with some stuff that we could actually study,” says Sue Marchi Kellogg, whose Spokane-based group grew out of a book presentation given four years ago by an employee of the Children’s Corner Bookshop.

“The problem,” Kellogg says, “is that we have a couple of English majors, we have a librarian in our group. We have some pretty serious readers, so we decided to go with some stuff that was actually worth our time.”

Last year’s list included Michael Dorris’ “Yellow Raft on Blue Water,” Tom Robbins’ “Jitterbug Perfume,” Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” and the stories of Katherine Mansfield.

Kellogg’s all-women group has used a couple of methods to choose books. The first was simply for members to offer suggestions and the group as whole to vote on the suggestions.

“The new method,” she says, “seems to be going better. We’ve just assigned people and said, ‘OK, you’re going to pick the book for one month, and then somebody else will pick the book for the next month.’ That way everybody gets to pick a book at least once a year.”

As is typical, the chooser doubles as the discussion leader - although each one brings her own set of criteria to the task.

“We had one member who actually prepared a quiz about something we read,” Kellogg says. “But she’s an exEnglish teacher, so I guess that makes sense.”

What also seems to make sense, in a curious way, is the fact that most book clubs are made up of couples or women only. All-men’s reading groups, unlike men’s therapy groups, are rare.

“It must have something to do with just finding the motivation to get together,” Kellogg says. “I really think that a lot of the times it is an excuse for the women to get together.

“We have several women who are stay-at-home moms, so this is kind of an opportunity for them to get together and have an adult interaction that keeps them stimulated.”

Eric Calkins belongs to a couples book club called the Classics Reading Group, which was formed in 1988. “We meet every month at a different house,” he says. “We have dinner and we talk.”

And for Calkins, who is a land surveyor by profession, the group is less of a social occasion that it is a chance to do something he might ordinarily avoid.

“I’m pretty busy,” he says. “When I was in college, I read a lot. I don’t read so much anymore. So it gives me ideas and incentive to read something that I wouldn’t otherwise read.”

He also likes the idea of “getting your initial reaction, perceptions changed and also expanded.”

That’s exactly what is taking place back on this evening in the comfortable, nouveau-log-home setting where the 92 BC book club is tackling its monthly read. The book in question is “Blood Meridian,” Cormac McCarthy’s darkly allegorical novel about violence in the Old West.

The reactions are mixed. Discussion leader Nettie Simonsen loves both McCarthy’s use of language and his ability to create a world that is at once tragic and telling of human struggles to come. Some of her fellow members aren’t so sure. And a couple flat out disagree.

But as the discussion continues, opinions flying faster than prepositional phrases, a meeting of the minds ensues.

Not everyone likes the McCarthy book, but all still like to read.

The only real question now seems obvious.

What’s up for next month?

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Following are the 10 books mentioned most often by the book clubs that contributed reading lists for this story:

The Bean Trees Barbara Kingsolver All the Pretty Horses Cormac McCarthy A Thousand Acres Jane Smiley Animal Dreams Barbara Kingsolver Angle of Repose Wallace Stegner Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather The Accidental Tourist Anne Taylor Mutant Messanger: Down Under Marlo Morgan Bastard Out of Carolina Dorothy Allison I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou

This sidebar appeared with the story: Following are the 10 books mentioned most often by the book clubs that contributed reading lists for this story:

The Bean Trees Barbara Kingsolver All the Pretty Horses Cormac McCarthy A Thousand Acres Jane Smiley Animal Dreams Barbara Kingsolver Angle of Repose Wallace Stegner Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather The Accidental Tourist Anne Taylor Mutant Messanger: Down Under Marlo Morgan Bastard Out of Carolina Dorothy Allison I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou


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