For the Love of Literature

Article excerpt

How books clubs help build bonds and bridge gaps, one page at a time.

ON A FRIDAY EVENING, A group of men and women from different backgrounds, ages and occupations, gather in a mosque, in the heart of Milwaukee, WI, to exchange passionate opinions on "Radical Reform: Islam, Ethics and Liberation," a book by Tariq Ramadan. Across the country, in the parlor of the Presbyterian Church of Western Springs, IL, a group comprised of church-going women and Muslim women from the nearby Bridgeview Mosque, are convening to discuss their views on "Sharon and My Mother-in-Law" by Suad Amiry. Over in Mississauga, Canada, Alia Kareem is browsing through her book club's latest selection and noting questions she wants to raise in the next meeting.

Book clubs are rapidly springing up across Muslim communities in North America as people discover the lifelong joys, the daily pleasures and the practical benefits of being part of a community that gathers to talk about literature. The clubs' structures vary gready. Some are for women only, while many are open to both men and women. There are those that have only Muslim members, and others which have a rich mix of different faiths.

Despite not having a formalized classroom structure, reading groups promote personal learning. Participating in reading group discussions helps improve communication skills, effective expression and polished listening. Reading groups with a rotating roster of leaders means that everyone has a chance to practice their leadership skills and the management of a group of people, with different backgrounds and opinions.

Carol Kellogg Stoub of the Presbyterian Church of Western Springs, a retired social worker, parent, and educator, is an ordained Elder and deacon in her church. Ihsan Atta, a self-employed Palestinian, raised in Milwaukee and married to an American convert, says his "involvement in the religious community has overwhelmingly been limited to attending Juma prayer and sponsored events." Kareem, a stay at home mother to three boys, originally from India, moved to Canada with her husband and has devoted herself to homemaking for the past ten years. Ann Beran Jones is a member of the same club as Stoub.

HM: How does being part of a book club enrich your life?

Carol: This is one of the best things I do with my life. The friendships, laughter and openness shared is beyond imagining. I believe this would not happen so easily in another venue. Reading is shared and safe so each of us is able to be true to ourselves and talk openly. We laugh a lot and apply the reading to our personal experiences. The discussions are rich and free flowing. We never have enough time and eagerly await our next gathering.

Ihsan: I think any activity a person involves themselves with is a source of enrichment. Besides the thought stimulation, interaction with others is vital in teaching oneself to open their mind to the thoughts, beliefs, opinions and experiences of others. To learn about other peoples' histories and life experiences is wonderful as it relates to the topics at hand. This interaction, especially in a thought provoking environment, lends itself to acceptance and/or tolerance of others' opinions and personalities in a respectful manner.

Alia: The book club keeps me in touch with the world. As a stay at home mother, it's easy to get so busy in my own life that personal learning stagnates. The club makes sure I am aware of current books and authors. By reading about life in different cultures and societies, my understanding of the world has been enormously enhanced. I am then forced to view myself and my lifestyle with new eyes.

HM: Has the book club played any role in your learning?

Carol: I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that knowing others persons, cultures and beliefs is essential for peace. It is accomplished one person at a time and we learn from one another in natural ways. As Americans became fearful of persons different from themselves, I felt that I wanted to find ways to get acquainted with Muslims on personal levels. …