By Carole Reedy
Although it was men who first made popular the concept of a reading group, women quickly followed, shifting their social activities from sewing circles and church groups to form their own reading clubs. Today, most book clubs are started by women searching to quench their thirst for knowledge in an ambience of camaraderie.
“Being with friends and sharing a book,” so simply stated by Camille, a book club participant in Boise, Idaho, seems to sum up why we’re compelled to gather over the written word. A former book club member from Chicago cites reading as her ultimate relaxation and finds the inherent pressure to finish assigned books the very antithesis of that. Still another smart and snarky woman among us doesn’t want to be told what to read (!).
Yet many of us gather happily. Here are four book clubs that have been successful due to their wisdom, longevity, and variety, and the intelligence, perseverance, and sociability of their members. Read what these wise women have to say. Three of the clubs are housed in the beautiful and culturally abundant Mexican cities of Mexico City (DF), Cuernavaca (Morelos), and San Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato). The fourth meets in one of the grandest North American cities, Chicago.
Mexico City: longevity and a club library
Longevity deserves first mention here. This book group, consisting now of 24 members, was started more than 48 years ago. When asked why she joined the book club, Nancy, one of the original members, remarks, “I can’t remember why I initially joined, but it was before I was married and I’ve been married 48 years. I imagine it was for the same reason that I’d join a book club today—to keep up on recent books and to meet friends for socializing.”
This book club is unique in several ways. It enjoys a structure that maximizes time for discussion without losing the sociability that everyone agrees is part of the book group experience. Meetings take place monthly (the pattern for most clubs), with members arriving at the host’s home at 4:30 pm for an hour of tea, coffee, lemonade, and a cornucopia of desserts, which makes this social hour most satisfying. A British member expresses some sentimentality regarding this tradition: “I don’t know how the non-Brits see it, but the shadow of my past that it casts is very reassuring to the aging baby boomer that I am.”
The most distinctive characteristic of this club is that is has its own library. Members pay dues, parts of which are used for books, which they vote to purchase. The 200 or so books are housed in 20 cartons that are moved each month to the next t meeting place. This ensures vast reading possibilities for each member. You may wonder about the reason for purchasing a library of books, and the answer is yet another unique approach practiced by these creative women: the structure of the discussion. After tea, at 5:30 pm the members are heralded by President Mimi: “Ready, ladies?” They proceed to another room where from their seats in a circle each woman talks briefly about the books she has read that month, describing for other members many titles about which to think and discuss, knowing that the books are available to them in the future (in those 20 cartons!).
Barbara, one of the wittiest of the women, tells us, “I love the store of books that’s trundled from house to house across Mexico City. It’s like visiting an old library full of friends. I enjoy the fact that we all read exactly what we feel like reading–no guidance, no final conclusions, but a variety of opinions.”
Each member has her favorite genre and her own manner of presenting the book or books she’s read that month. Some members read contemporary fiction, others savor biography and memoirs, and some devour history, politics, and economics. This variety keeps the discussions fresh and interesting from week to week.
Who are these women? They range in age from their 40s to 80s. Most have lived in Mexico for many, many years (20 to 80) and they hail from Mexico, Britain, Ireland, the US, South Africa, and Australia. In addition, all members are bi-lingual.
Being a socially aware group, the members choose also to donate part of their dues for scholarships and books to good causes, such as Foundation Juconi, providing help for socially excluded children and families affected by violence in Puebla. The club also makes cash donations to a small, rural library–Biblioteca de San Agustinillo in Oaxaca—where the funds are used to buy children’s books.
At the end of each year, this club celebrates yet another milestone in their history with a Christmas breakfast, gift exchange, and many warm hugs and kisses. And while they have an extensive history together, they’re gracious about sharing it with newer members.
Three other clubs, whose members read the same book
The next three clubs use the same basic meeting structure, a bit different from the Mexico City club. They meet at a member’s house for a meal prepared by the host or share a pot luck. Opinions vary about the food portion of the meeting. Many members love it and feel it’s part of the reason to gather, while others see it as an interference and unnecessary burden for the host. The principal difference is that in these clubs everyone reads the same title, sharing books (some brought from their home countries: US, Britain, and Canada) and also using libraries or Kindles. Each club has its own endearing qualities.
Cuernavaca, Morelos These nine good friends have been together for 22 years and there’s even a commemorative plaque outside of the Cuernavaca Library recognizing their dedication to reading. Creativity flows here. One member invents literary quizzes and recites poetry she’s written about the club and its members. The club also wrote a book of their favorite recipes that have been shared over the years. There is healthy, healing laughter at each meeting, the solid friendships evident and the smaller number of attendees lending an easy intimacy. One member says that the book club has strengthened not only their understanding of literature, but their relationships too.
San Miguel de Allende This club, also together for about 20 years, is a fine example of organization and anticipation. They plan their reading schedule and gathering places six months in advance. Their current leader, Pip, organizes and sends out reminders about meetings as well as summaries afterward. She also leads the monthly discussions, keeping everyone on track. San Miguel is a beautiful colonial town in the desert just north of Mexico City. Many members of this book club live there just part-time (with some traveling back to the US frequently, due to proximity), so the number of members present at each meeting varies substantially.
Chicago, Illinois, US Looking north to the Windy City, we hear from Phyllis, a 20-year+ member of her book club, which includes 20 like-minded women. She talks about the changes over the years, noting that aging, retirement, illness, and other commitments appear to have affected the ability to regularly schedule meetings, which many find frustrating. Phyllis also addresses the concept of adding new members: “I think when groups have been together for so long a certain sameness develops regarding the kind of books chosen and the time spent on book discussion. Sometimes it’s good to add new people or change it up a bit so we members don’t get lazy.” Like many book club devotees, Phyllis belongs to three different clubs, which provides reading variety and a broad perspective. Even the most avid reader may find the deadlines daunting, however (this reader included!).
Online book clubs
Across the board, none of the women we talked to participates in online book clubs or discussions, the reason being lack of intimacy and socialization. In a survey of participants in the four clubs, the importance of conviviality matches the intellectual stimulation experienced at each meeting.
Electronic vs paper books
Response to electronic reading varies. In the San Miguel book club, most members have Kindles, so the availability of the monthly book selection is no challenge. In the Mexico City club, few have Kindles, clinging to and coveting their hard-cover books for as long as they can before the electronic age takes over. And of the Cuernavaca club, member Rosalind says, “There’s no substitute for the feel of the book, the smell of the paper, and the pure joy of turning the pages. Some of us have Kindles and iPads, but use them mostly for traveling.”
Another member of the club, Susan, argues, “My Kindle is not just a travel book. In fact, it’s made reading paper books quite cumbersome for me. Reading on the white screen is much easier on my eyes, though I read many more hours at a time now so in the end my eyes do suffer, but I can’t tell you how much I love it! I’ve been reading mostly classical literature lately, free or almost free, as well as other books no longer in print.”
Whether the words arrive on paper or plastic, readers are gathering. Check out LitLovers.com for a wide variety of photos and Q&A with in-person book clubs the world over.