Throughout your life, you've started book clubs wherever you've lived. What motivates you to bring people together around books?
I think it goes back to a fantasy I've had all my life and recently wrote about on a blog. I saw too many foreign films in my youth. Picture the vineyard in Tuscany, pan to the villa: there, in the garden under a tree is a group of friends dining al fresco. The talk is of philosophy, feelings, politics, whatever - deep, meaningful conversation. I always thought I'd experience that someday in my own home with my own dinner guests. As it turns out, it never happens. The discussions are of more practical, mundane matters: kids, the cost of things, restaurants. So I think book groups are my only hope of having those deeper conversations.
Since joining your first one, has there ever been a period of time when you weren't in a book group?
I don't believe so. In every city I've moved to since 1968 I've started a book group because in those days they weren't common and I couldn't find groups. The most difficult one to start up was in Birmingham, Alabama where the women I worked with in a large clothing factory had to drive in from rural towns; they were young mothers and absolutely had no time for reading. So it took a few months to meet other women. But it was always the first question I asked when I met a new person - "Do you like to read? Haven't you always wanted to discuss what you read?"
Tell us about your first book club?
I feel so fortunate that when I was a very young mother at home in the Dallas suburbs our local library announced that a Great Books Discussion Group was forming, sponsored by the University of Chicago. I signed up immediately. I still have the paperback boxed sets for each year. Our first discussion was Plato's Apology and Crito, followed the next week by Sophocles's Antigone. Needless to say I struggled with the reading and savored the discussion. I was often silent and felt intimidated but loved it so much.
Our facilitator was trained by the Great Books Foundation so it was a formal format for discussion. We could spend thirty minutes on just one phrase or sentence, going deeper and deeper into the meanings. I was in the group for three years and we met every week. After three years I signed up to take the training to lead Junior Great Books in elementary schools. That was an amazing experience because my first school was a Catholic elementary school taught by the old-fashioned nuns. These fifth grade students were disciplined and taught not to question authority. So I expected them to be timid about speaking out or thinking it was okay to have opinions that were different from others. I was astounded then that they took the readings and absolutely dug in for some serious talk. It was so surprising and rewarding.
What came next?
I love a trip down memory lane! After the Great Books group in Dallas, I moved to Birmingham. It was a tense time there, after the church bombings and the civil rights struggle. Some of the women that I worked with, sweet older women who taught Sunday school and were so nice to me, I soon found out that some of their husbands were in the Ku Klux Klan. It was shocking to me, and a relief when I moved the following year to New York City. Nevertheless, I did form a small group of women in Birmingham, two from the office who were originally from Canada, and three were wives of the executives that I worked with. We met at my small apartment one night a month, and it was potluck, wine and lightweight discussions. I found it wasn't a good idea, since I was so new in the company, to discuss serious issues with people I worked with and wives whose husbands were my bosses. It was very intimidating and since I was normally very liberal and outspoken I felt I had to hold back a bit. Choosing non-controversial books in this case was a good idea.
New York City followed Birmingham and the women I asked to join my new book group were as diverse as they were homogeneous in the south. We met in my living room one night a month. Our small, eclectic group of women included a Haitian, an African-American, and a Polish concentration camp survivor. That year we decided to read classics and started with one of my favorites, Wuthering Heights ...ah Heathcliff and the tragedy and fury of his love! I learned so much from those women in such a short time and feel they helped me to shed some of my sheltered upbringing and opened my eyes to different ways of looking at the world. Because of a company transfer I had to move after a year and I really hated to leave that book group. They did not continue to meet after I left and I was sorry to hear it. I think we were all good for one another.
In 1973 I started another book group in Mill Valley, California, this time with couples, and we discussed mostly non-fiction. Most of the husbands were physicians and I must say it was hard for any of the wives to be heard (we hadn't quite gotten the hang of feminism, and speaking up), so we disbanded and I decided to go back to my "women only" format. In 1974 I started an all-women group with a core of 10 new friends and that group is still meeting to this day in Marin County with three of the original group members still hanging in there. Through the 20 years that I was leading the group we read, discussed and supported each other through childbirth, divorces, husbands coming out of the closet, wives coming out of the closet, and formed friendships that continue to this day even though many of us have moved from the bay area.
Tell us about one of your most memorable discussions from that group?
One of our most memorable discussions early on was The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. For me it was a departure, and a really grim, disturbing book to read. Again, as in New York, one of our members had survived living in the Netherlands during World War II and made us realize the importance of authors writing about the horrors that befall innocent citizens during war, the inhumanity that becomes contagious. She told us of digging in garbage cans to find food, stealing rotten fruit to take home to her siblings, and how her father, a minister, was taken off one night to a camp for helping Jews to escape the country.
On a lighter note, one of the funniest and most frustrating discussions was Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. None of the women "got it" and I remember ending up reading pages and trying to explain the humor and the meaning. It was not successful, but we all laughed a lot.
Finding some time on my hands and to satisfy a craving for an additional book group, in 1990 I joined a San Francisco library group that was co-ed. I figured enough years had gone by and that perhaps men would be more responsive and better listeners than they were in the 70s. And in fact, it was true. To get a male perspective enriches many books. One in particular, The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro was much more interesting because of the men's point of view.
Tell us about how your current book groups started.
In 1999 I left the bay area and came to Los Angeles, began working for Portrait of a Bookstore and started its first book group. It has grown in these 10 years to two groups of sixteen women each and a waiting list. Most of the growth has been in the last two years. We struggled along in the first few years with 3 to 6 women attending, so it's very gratifying to see the growth. I wonder about the recent jump in interest - is the economy prompting more people to entertain themselves with reading rather than going out?
Did you try any other book groups at Portrait of a Bookstore?
We tried other types of book groups that never caught on. For three years I tried to build interest in the non-fiction group that I started for men and women, but I finally gave up on the rainy night that no one showed up but me. We also tried a book to film discussion group. We'd all read, for example, The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham and then rent the film and meet to discuss both. We maintained it for a year but never had more than three members attend. I thought it was such an interesting idea too! I still have my movie group (outside of the bookstore), entering it's 4th year and going strong. It is sooo much fun.
Do you have a favorite book club - past or present?
My favorite book clubs are the two we are running at Portrait of a Bookstore. They have evolved into groups with rigorous and deep discussions, hardly ever off topic, and very challenging. Most members make notes to jog their memories on points they want to make or questions they have. We sometimes get completely carried away and all begin talking at once. That's when I have to step in and bring us back to one-at-a-time discussion.
What are some of your most memorable discussions from this group?
A book a few years ago that almost brought us to blows was The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve. There was so much heated disagreement on several controversial and mysterious plot points, and on the motivations of various characters. We never reached a consensus, but the discussion was wonderful. That's what keeps me at it - I love the rousing, passionate, heated discussions. Give me that anytime as opposed to a book everyone likes but no one can find anything interesting to say about it. Nabokov's Lolita made for a great meeting with much angst in trying to peel back the layers, deal with the tricks, and pin down the characters and plot. There was so much to talk about, that truly could have been a two-meeting book.
How do you lead the discussions in your groups?
I lead in an informal way, and usually start the meeting off with what I hope is an interesting question thrown to the group. Sometimes I pose a question and have each member address it in turn around the table or room. I maintain the flow of the conversation, stop and regroup when more than one person begins talking. I always come prepared with several talking points and post-its all over the book's pages marking things I hope to talk about. Other than that, the group mostly just goes on its own. It's always interesting when a member surprises us by stating an opinion that is the opposite of what we thought she would say. We've all been together for a while now and think we know each other, so surprises are good.
What kinds of books make for the best discussions? Which don't?
The worst are books with no controversy, or ones that everyone likes. The best raise questions either in plot or story that aren't clearly resolved. Just because a book is filled with beautiful prose also doesn't necessarily mean there will be something to discuss. Books that leave you wondering, puzzling, thinking about it after you are finished are usually best for discussion. Sometimes I recommend a book I don't like just because I know it will generate good discussion. A perfect example is The Dive From Clausen's Pier, by Ann Packer. I personally didn't like it but knew the issue and the protagonist's dilemma would carry us into a solid talk.
How you do you choose the books for your group?
We have tried every method imaginable. The worst one for us was just letting members shout out suggestions for the next book at the end of the meeting. It was always the loudest person whose book was chosen. We've tried going alphabetically and have each person choose a book for a certain month, but some don't like the responsibility of choosing a book others might not like. We then tried everyone writing book suggestions on slips of paper and we would draw one out at the end of a meeting and that was the book for the next meeting, but then the bookstore couldn't provide the books in time.
Finally, we now have a system that seems to work pretty well for everyone. In October, everyone who wants to suggests 3 books each. I compile the list of all the suggestions and e-mail them to the members who then have a whole month to read reviews and make their decisions. At the November meeting each person votes for 11 books (In December we have a Christmas party with a white elephant book exchange and potluck.) I tally the votes and e-mail the list of the 11 books with the most votes. Those are the books we read for the coming year. I try to balance the months alternating long books with shorter ones, lighter subjects with heavier ones, etc, so that we don't have three 600-page books in a row.
Do you like women-only groups, or mixed groups - or both? What's different about them?
As I said, I used to be quite biased against men in groups, but that was long ago and far away. Now I find that men bring a totally different perspective to the table and that can be very illuminating. In general they have a body of knowledge that is more reflective of their interests. The men I have been in book groups with, for example, usually are well versed in history and science and bring that knowledge to the conversation.
You've often had such great age ranges and cultural diversity in your groups. How do you think that enhances the discussions?
It is much more exciting to have age and cultural diversity in a group. Our groups at Portrait of a Bookstore are fairly diverse and it's great that we have members from late 20s to 70s, although the main membership I would say is middle-aged. We also have diversity in professions from nurses, teachers, actors, and artists to executives and business owners. Having young members is invaluable, they keep us "old gals" tuned in to how the new generations think, how the culture and its values are changing, and how that is affecting the literature we read. We, who used to expect a beginning, middle and end to our books, are now exposed to different forms of writing, like Olive Kitteridge, with a non-traditional format which our younger members thought interesting, whereas some of the older members like myself had a problem with it. By the end of the discussion we opened our minds to the "short stories" the novel consisted of, and decided it was an interesting approach.
You must have run into a lot of personalities over the years. Tell us about some of your favorites?
An attorney in my first Great Book group in Dallas was one of the most unattractive and most brilliant men I had ever met. I was telling some friends about him one day on a shopping shuttle bus downtown. I described him in detail especially his physical attributes. As I stood to get off the bus, I realized he was sitting directly behind me. He never looked up or acknowledge that he heard me, but I wanted to turn into a cockroach and crawl away. At the next meeting he didn't act any differently. I still think about it and wonder if he heard me or not... I pray he didn't.
One woman in our bay area group came out of the closet at a meeting one evening. I don't believe the book we were discussing had anything to do with it, she just felt comfortable with us and decided to share.
How do you deal with challenging personalities that disrupt the group?
It's really tough... I always pray they'll quit or leave town. I'm getting better at trying to quiet them down. I think because I volunteer in my grandson's kindergarten class once a week I've picked up a pointer or two from the teacher. I have to admit that in the beginning it was sometimes like being back in high school or maybe kindergarten. Some members would try to dominate the conversation by talking loudly and incessantly. There were times that members would say things that would offend another member. Soothing those hurt feelings was important. Sometimes a member would drop out because of hurt feelings, but I found you just have to let them go and move forward trying to improve the group as you go.
A woman years ago was a frustrated teacher and she tried to take over every discussion by "teaching" the rest of us what we should think about the book. We tried everything to stop her even telling her directly that we weren't her students. She listened and then went back to her old ways. We had begun to dread going to the group and were talking about disbanding when "the teacher" told us she was moving away and would no longer be able to attend. We gave her a rousing farewell party and all began to enjoy our group again.
How many books do you read a year?
I read about 65 to 75 books a year. I only started keeping a list of them in 2005 and I wish I had done it years ago. I list them in the back of my planner, putting an asterisk by the ones I especially like. Just the process of writing them down helps me remember each book and author.
What advice would you offer someone wanting to start a book club for the first time?
Don't hesitate, gather a few friends. Check out some websites (like BookBrowse!) for good book ideas and go.
Thanks so much for talking with us, Donna. No doubt some of our readers around the country have discussed a book or two with you over the years, and the rest of us will hope for the chance... maybe when you get that Tuscan villa.
This Q&A first ran in 2010. Sadly Portrait of a Bookstore closed in 2012.
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