In an effort to connect libraries to the reading community at large, in July 2007, the Perry Branch Library in Gilbert, Arizona began a monthly, librarian-facilitated book group. Lesley Marshall, who heads the program, tells BookBrowse a bit about it...
Who started the Perry Branch Adult Book Group and why?
This is a library group, led by a librarian on staff. Nancy Paradise was the first person at the Perry Branch Library to head this program, but there have been a number of personnel changes since it began, and now I [Lesley Marshall] lead the group. Library programming is an essential way to connect libraries and reading to the community. We need to support each other!
How many members are in your group? What is the demographic?
We have about 16 people in our book club. The age range is from 40 to 70 years old, and we are predominantly made up of women; only 2 men! The group consists of serious readers who are intelligent and well-traveled. They love to read and bring their own history and insight to the discussion. We even have a published author among us!
Sounds like a lively bunch. How would you describe your group's personality?
We're a very literary group, open-minded and liberal - politically and in terms of what we read. We're good listeners and respectful of each others' thoughts and points of view.
You mentioned you're liberal with what you read; what sort of books does your group tend to pick?
We read mostly fiction by debut authors that have been favorably reviewed. Every once in a while, we do read memoirs (e.g., The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok) and classics (e.g., My Antonia by Willa Cather) as well. The books we tend to choose deal with relationship issues, in particular, characters in conflict (e.g., A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick and Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich). We also read books that are set in foreign countries (e.g., Waiting by Ha Jin and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey).
The members of the book group are well-travelled and like to analyze characters, so both of these types of books appeal to them.
How do you decide which books to read?
I check reviews, look for the plots that would appeal to the group and then see how many copies are available through our library system; the librarian chooses the book each month and brings enough copies for the group. If we don't have enough copies, I sometimes ask members to buddy up and share.
What are some of the books that have generated the most interesting discussions?
One book that generated a lot of discussion was a book set in Arizona called Hopi Summer by Carolyn O'Bagy Davis. This book was chosen as the "OneBookAZ" winner in 2011, and as a group we learned a great deal about the culture and history of the people in Arizona. In addition to the aforementioned books, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson produced some great discussion because the group is interested in analyzing characters, foreign lands, people, and their cultures.
That's interesting, as at first glance those two books look like they don't have a lot in common but, as you say, they both explore culture and characters. Are there any books that bombed?
I chose two books outside the standard fiction genre, a science fiction title - Everything Matters by Ron Currie and The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart, which many members classified as fantasy. The group doesn't like to stray far from general fiction because they can't relate to the characters or their situations.
Have you ever gotten off topic in your meetings, and if so, has it caused friction in the group?
Sometimes we have gotten off topic, but these sidetracks always relate back to the book and enhance the discussions.
Do you host any special events or is there anything that your group does that might inspire other book clubs?
Each year, our library participates in a program called "OneBook AZ". This program is coordinated by the Arizona State Library Department of Archives and Public Records, and its purpose is to bring communities together through literature. Each year in April, a book title is chosen for adults, and one is chosen for kids. For the entire month, people in the state are supposed to read this particular book. The focus of each year's book choice is Arizona topics or themes. Our library normally does a book discussion, and each member receives a free copy of the book. Sometimes we even have a guest speaker. (To see if your city participates in the "One Book, One City" program, check out the Library of Congress's website: www.read.gov.)
The library also participates each year in the "Big Read" which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. For this program, a book is chosen (normally a classic title) and a book discussion, author talk, film viewing, or other activity is featured. This year's title is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Our library is reading the book (free copies are given to each member of our group), and we watch the movie. A film instructor from one of the local colleges discusses aspects of the movie with our group. These are two great programs that tie reading to the community.
What wonderful ways to bring people together! Does your book club attract a diverse crowd?
Yes; the mix of the people in this group makes for a great discussion.
When you read a book, one person's point of view can be so limited, so when a group comes together to share their varied views, it can open up new insights into the book.
What are the best things about belonging to your book club?
I asked and members of the group said:
"Through this reading group, I am exposed to books I normally wouldn't have picked."
"I like the variety of books that we read."
"The group is comprised of serious readers."
"I feel respected by the members of our group and am able to express my opinion without fear of being ridiculed."
It sounds like a very cooperative and supportive group! Have you ever faced any challenges? And how did you deal with them?
The number of books available for the group has been our biggest challenge. I am looking into getting book kits from other library systems (that normally have 10 copies included in them).
Thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview! As my last question, I'm curious: Do you have any advice for other book groups? Are there any tips that you'd like to pass on?
Be non-judgmental of the group members and their opinions, and be respectful.
There are some great websites out there (e.g. BookBrowse!) that can help you in the process of leading a group; use these! They can assist you in choosing books, getting discussion questions, and gathering author information.
Laughter helps mold most groups, and sharing one's life experiences helps bring a group closer together. There are situations and events in literature that people have experienced in real life. Bring these to the discussion. It makes for a close-knit group and for a more personal and meaningful discussion. And keep reading!