BookBrowse interviews Erica Schwartz joins us to chat about her 17-year-old Manhattan-based book club, "The Nights at the Round Table." about all aspects of their book club.

Book Club Interviews

Erica Schwartz joins us to chat about her 17-year-old Manhattan-based book club, "The Nights at the Round Table."

How long has your group been together?

The original version of our book club started in late 1991. I was part of a small organization for new mothers in Manhattan. A few of us lamented the fact that it was hard to find time to read now that we had infants, so we thought that a book club would give us motivation. Over time, most of the original members of that group left the city or dropped out of the club. There were two of us left and we built the club back up from there.

When you reformed, starting with just two of you, did you try to do anything different from when you first started?

The group reformed itself in early 1994. I decided at that point to drop the concept of members being new moms, and just bring together smart, friendly women who wanted to read and talk about books. Since we were creating a group by invitation only, there was more control over the group's personality. We also started meeting in the evenings, rather than during the daytime, so members who had jobs could participate.

(Erica is in the front row on the right)

Did you ever consider including men in the group?

The all-women aspect of our group was intentional, since it grew out of our beginnings as a group of new mothers, even though since then we've expanded to include members who are single and others who are married but didn't have kids. Some of us are currently working full or part-time, others have suspended their careers to raise children. We are so comfortable with each other and the all-female composition of the group that I don't think we would invite any men to join.

So, how many are in the group now?    

We currently have ten regular members, all women, most of us in our 40s.

Other than the two of you who formed the new group, had anyone else been in a book club before?

Most of our members had not been in a book club before joining this one (in the early and mid-90s, book groups were not as popular or common as they are today). While the original group may have started as a way to ensure that a bunch of new mothers would find time to read, it has evolved over the years so that now we enjoy the intellectual stimulation of our book discussions and the encouragement to read books we might not choose for ourselves.

Do you have a name?

Our group had no name until earlier this year. I thought it would be fun to have a name and was inspired partly by reading the interviews on the BookBrowse website! I came up with a few options on my own and then brainstormed with everyone else at one of the meetings. We voted unanimously on "Nights at the Round Table". Besides the literary reference, the name draws on the fact that most of our meetings have taken place at a large, round table in the back of a Chinese restaurant.

That sounds fun - how did you end up meeting there?  I've heard from many bookclubers who find meeting in public places challenging because of the noise and because they feel rushed.  Has that been a problem?

Since our group has been around so long, we have tried a variety of meeting locations. For a long time, each member would take a turn hosting in her home and we would have potluck dinners. However, the realities of NYC apartment living mean that not everyone can do that; also, some members live outside Manhattan. So we started meeting in a conveniently located Chinese restaurant, where they have a big round table that is quite conducive to conversation. Because the table is in a back room, the atmosphere is usually quiet. The staff doesn't rush us and the food cost is reasonable. Now we meet there most of the time, with the occasional home-based meeting.

Tell us about a typical meeting? 

Our meetings are usually the last Monday of the month at 7pm. If that day is a holiday, or if too many people have a conflict, we meet the next day or the week before or after.

The meetings follow a fairly dependable format: We gather at the Chinese restaurant (or in someone's apartment) and have a period of socializing and personal conversation. Sometimes we start discussing the book when the food arrives at the table, but sometimes we don't get around to it for much longer! One of us usually brings some book reviews or reading guide questions, but most of our discussions are based on our own ideas, opinions and observations.

We don't usually stray too far off-topic, but sometimes it's hard to find the right balance between the actual book discussion and the personal conversations. It's fine if occasionally  someone comes to a meeting without reading the book, since we enjoy just catching up with each other, but  our members don't do that very often. If someone hasn't finished a book, it can be hard to discuss it without giving away the ending; we do the best we can in those situations. Our group is made up of women who enjoy reading and discussing books, but we are not an overly serious bunch. I remember that the first year of the club, one of the members wanted us to read only major classics, like Anna Karenina. That hardcore approach didn't last!

What sort of books do you read and how do you pick them?

We read mostly literary fiction, most of it contemporary, but try to put a classic on the list occasionally. We have also read a few plays, because one of our members has a theater background. We have tried nonfiction, but find that it does not result in the best discussions. And we try to read some short story collections, especially if they are written by authors whose novels we enjoy.

Our "year" begins in September, with no meetings in December, March or August, due to vacation schedules. We use August as a time to gather suggestions for what to read in the coming year. Everyone provides me with their lists, and I also do extensive searching on the Internet, in the NY Times Book Review and in bookstores to come up with additional ideas. Then I send a list of the suggestions, with descriptions of the books, to all members via email. Everyone votes on their top 9 books and I tally the results. Sometimes, we leave a month open on purpose, so that if there is suddenly a "hot" book, we can add it to the schedule.

Are there some books that stand out as having generated particularly interesting discussions?

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, was a controversial book for us. The subject matter, a teenager who commits a horrific school shooting, was difficult, and some members did not want to read it. However, it generated one of our best, most intense discussions, despite the fact that it was so disturbing (or maybe because it was disturbing!). Also notable was Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian, as an example of a book that we felt was flawed, but still resulted in a really long and thorough discussion.

What about all time favorite?

The best books for discussion are those with interesting, engaging themes or something notable, like an unusual narrative structure.

Our top picks, books that rated highly and also generated good discussions, would include Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi; The Reader by Bernhard Shlink; The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas; She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb; Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky; and The Glass Castle a memoir by Jeanette Walls (a rare nonfiction selection!). We also found it very interesting to read both Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, and The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, in the same year. The books have similar themes and the writers are married to each other. That was a nice opportunity to compare two books.

Are there any books that bombed?  If so, why do you think they did?

While we often disagree in our opinions about the books, it's rare that a selection is universally panned. One that comes to mind is Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett. It just didn't work. We were disappointed by All Aunt Hagar's Children, a short story collection by Edward P. Jones; and most people couldn't finish Snow by Orhan Pamuk. We picked The Elements of Style, Wendy Wasserstein's novel, for mainly sentimental reasons, and agreed that although it was an easy read it was all fluff.

Is there something in particular that makes your group special to you?

One of the best things about our book club is how comfortable we are with one another, as a result of being together for so long. We bring in new members slowly in order to maintain the intimacy of the group. Because we know each other well, we enjoy getting input from each other about what we read. For example, one of our members is a psychiatrist, and it's great when she can give us some insight, based on her professional experience, about a character or situation in the plot. Many years ago, we read A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, and would never have realized that the story was a modern retelling of King Lear if it weren't for one of our members being a theater major in college! More recently, we read Small Island by Andrea Levy, a book with an immigrant family theme, and one of our members shared some facts about her own background and childhood that helped us get into a deeper conversation about that issue. 

This year, I went through my book club files and put together a list of nearly everything we've ever read. The early years predated the Internet and email, so those lists were only in hard copy form. Even with some missing pieces, it was an amazing collection. Without the structure of a book club, we probably wouldn't have read so many quality books, and certainly wouldn't have understood as much about them.

Are there any particular challenges that you've faced as a group that you'd like to share?

Attendance can sometimes be a problem. With ten members in our group, occasionally only 4 or 5 people show up to a meeting, which is frustrating. We try to maximize attendance by being flexible about moving the meeting date, so if fewer than 4 members plan to be there, we usually find another date. A personal challenge of mine is to encourage everyone to attend the meetings, regardless of whether they "liked" a book, since the best discussions involve a variety of opinions and points of view. We are very careful about adding members, even though a larger group would help address this problem.

Any special events that you'd like to share with us?

About ten years ago, one of our members was suddenly hospitalized during her first pregnancy. We arranged to bring the book club meeting to a lounge on her floor, and she got permission to attend. Last year, another member successfully bid on an auction item at her child's school, which was the chance to have a book discussion with Alice Hoffman. She had just come out with Skylight Confessions, so we read the book and met with Alice to discuss it. That was a special evening.

How do you organize yourselves outside of meetings?  Do you have one person coordinating?

I am the group's coordinator, and most of our organization is handled via email. I send everyone the suggested list of books for the year and they send back their votes. Then I make up the final schedule and send that to the group, complete with meeting dates and book selections. I also send out reminders prior to each meeting and keep track of the RSVPs. If we are doing a potluck in someone's home, people coordinate with the hostess about what to bring.

What books are coming up on your reading schedule soon?

We haven't voted on the final selections for the year yet, but our September book will be Those Who Save Us, a novel by Jenna Blum with a Holocaust theme.

Thank you, Erica, for sharing so many useful insights about your club.  I'm sure I speak for all reading this, in wishing you many more years reading together.

Erica was interviewed by BookBrowse's editor, Davina Morgan-Witts

© November 2008.

Would you be interested in being interviewed for this feature? If so, please contact us with brief details about your club. It is very helpful if you include both a contact email and a telephone number.

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