This month, Dottie MacKeen, leader of a book club sponsored by the Thoreau Health Club of Concord, MA, shares with us the tips and tricks that keep this 50-member group happily reading, and exercising, together!
Hello Dottie, thanks for taking the time to chat with BookBrowse. First off, what a great idea to start a book club in a health club! Whose idea was it?
About five years ago Julie Williams, one of the managers at the Thoreau Health Club (an independent club), was leading a water aerobics class. She found that instead of focusing on our exercises, several members of the group (including her) were spending the time talking about the books they were reading. Believing that sound bodies need sound minds, she suggested starting a book group and,
since I have lead book groups for several years, asked me to be the discussion facilitator. We began with 8 or 9 members.
Julie Williams, who started the book club is in the back row on the right;
Dottie is next to her.
Do people have to be "regulars" to attend, or can they drop in when they feel like it?
The group is open to anyone who belongs to the club and we currently have about 50 people on the e-mail list. Most discussion meetings are 10-15 people, with people dropping in when they have time or when the book is one that particularly appeals to them.
How do you stay in touch with people in between meetings, especially those who don't attend regularly?
We meet monthly to discuss the books we have selected and I send out an e-mail summary of our discussion so that the members who can’t attend the meeting can still read along with us and get a sense of the opinions of the members who were there. We have one member who moved back to England and still participates
on-line in the group.
How would you describe your group? Is it different in any notable way to other book clubs you've been in?
This is a group of very well educated, very articulate people. My favorite thing about this group is that I always come away from the discussions with some new insights or new ideas about the book – the subject – the author. We often don’t agree on the merits of the book but some of our best discussions have been about books where opinions were widely divided. While the group is open to any
members, we have only one man who is a regular member but he holds up the end well for his gender.
One thing that is different about our group is that, for most of the members, the Club is our only connection. This makes it easier to stay focused on the book and, because we are drawing from such a diverse group of people, they bring a wonderful breadth of experience and knowledge to the discussions. I also lead a group at a book store – open to the public – and it is important in that group as well to stay book focused rather than allowing the conversations to be totally personal and social.
Could you describe a typical meeting?
As part of the "atmosphere", I try to provide a snack that reflects what we are reading. When we read
by Lalita Tademy we enjoyed her family's peach cobbler. Books on the Middle East bring out the pita, hummus and dates. The Book Club Cookbook
is a good resource for groups that like to chew while they talk.
Our meetings are about an hour long and we try to stay focused on the book we are discussing. I do some background research on the author and on the book or – in the case of
Orhan Pamuk's books, on 16th Century Islamic art. Our discussions are
informal. Members of the group often do their own research to share, or bring in newspaper articles or reviews. We try to look at characters, plot, writing style – other literary topics but sometimes the subject of the book is so relevant to our daily lives that we move from literature into reality.
Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi,
Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, and The Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks were books that mirror the daily headlines and the discussions reflected that.
Are there any books that stand out as discussion favorites?
Some of our favorite titles - and good discussion books - are Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt,
of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III,
by Jeffrey Eugenides,
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. Most of these books provided an opportunity to tie the book
discussions to our own experiences.
Will in the World, which is a biography of William Shakespeare, gave us an opportunity to discuss the entire subject of memoirs and biographies - what is true, how do you evaluate the writer's credibility.
What about any books that weren't a success?
We read She is Me by Catherine Schine and group members found it less than compelling and not rich enough to inspire a good discussion - generally the problem when we have a book that is less successful.
As a general rule, what type of books do you tend to choose, and how do you choose them?
Most of the books selected are fairly serious titles. Occasionally we try to find something a bit lighter. One month we selected Elinor Lipman's
The Inn at Lake Devine and Jonathan Tropper's Everything Changes to contrast whether male and female authors handle personal relationship stories differently and how authors can use humor to approach serious subjects.
While when we started we thought we might focus on books that were health related, we have only chosen one or two that might vaguely fit that category. We choose books as a group and since I think book selection is the most difficult thing the group has to do, we try to select 6 or 8 at a time so we don’t have to spend time at every meeting working through what we want to read. Because we have such a wide range of members, we try to provide a varied selection of books
in the hope that everyone will find something they like. We include fiction and non-fiction and try to reach out to other cultures with our reading. But I think the best reason for being in a book group is that it takes you out of your comfort zone. Some of the books I have been most grateful for the opportunity to read are ones I would never have chosen myself.
Some members purchase the books; many of them borrow books from the library, so we make sure when we select a title that it is out in paperback and off the best seller list so it will be readily available.
Do you ever have guest speakers in to talk about their books?
The group thought they might like to meet an author at one of our meetings. We invited Jill McCorkle, who was a local author at the time, to visit with us for a meeting where we discussed her collection of short stories and that was a fun meeting. Jill is a wonderful speaker and was full of funny comments on her writing life. But I have had authors at other book groups and it is always less a book group discussion than an opportunity to talk to the author.
How about special events and activities?
We do encourage our members to participate in the annual author festival held in town – we occasionally try to go as a group. When we are reading a book that has been made into a film, we suggest that members watch the movie so we can discuss that as well as the book.
Every summer we set aside one meeting as our summer reading recommendation session. Instead of reading a title together, everyone is encouraged to bring in at least one book that they have enjoyed and want to share with the group. This is a good opportunity to recommend those titles that we love to read but that don’t really work well as discussion books. After the meeting, I e-mail a complete list to everyone so they have a summer reading guide.
Thank you Dottie, this has been very interesting. I am sure that your insights into the Thoreau Health Club book club will be of interest to all our visitors who are in a book club, but especially those who are part of book clubs that also meet in public places.