Read All about It Book Clubs Share Ideas, Sometimes Even History, and Most of All a Respect for the Written Word

By Hyman, Ann | The Florida Times Union, February 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

Read All about It Book Clubs Share Ideas, Sometimes Even History, and Most of All a Respect for the Written Word


Hyman, Ann, The Florida Times Union


Reading is a game of solitaire.

Indeed, one of the purposes and pleasures of reading is its

ability to create a private time and space in the midst of a

three-hour layover in Atlanta, in a doctor's waiting room or on

a crowded beach.

But books do not necessarily end on the last page. For millions

of readers, a book isn't over until it's talked about.

Hence, book clubs: tiny book clubs of friends sitting around

the kitchen table, massive book clubs of millions of television

viewers reading Jacquelyn Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean

or Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon for Oprah's Book Club.

Book clubs come in infinite variety. Some are scholarly. Some

are just for fun. Some are political, issue oriented. Some

simply follow the best-seller lists.

Just about the only thing all have in common is that people who

join book clubs love to read and love to talk about it.

"For me, it's a chance to learn from other people. We all read

the very same things, but we see it very differently, based on

our own experiences," said Lynn Weise, a member of the St. Johns

Literary Guild and Chamber Music Society for eight years.

That's one of Jacksonville's senior book clubs. It's more than

a quarter century old, its seeds from the graduate English

program at Jacksonville University and comprised, in the

beginning, of graduate students and professors.

It certainly sounds lofty, the St. Johns Literary Guild, etc.

Actually, that's a gag.

The name, not the group.

The name came about when one of the members needed another

community involvement for a resume. She cooked up the "literary

guild" and someone else tacked on "chamber music" because, years

ago, the club used to hire live music for its Christmas party.

Actually, the St. Johns Literary Guild is a plain old book

club, a group of 20 or so people who get together once a month

to talk about books. As in virtually all book clubs, most are

women. For its 25th anniversary gala, a bring-your-own picnic at

the beach, party favors were distributed. They were homemade

laminated bookmarks with silver bells and the names of all the

players who had come and gone those 25 years. About 100 names,

the living and the dead.

That's the thing about a book club.

As time passes, history develops. The books read, the ideas

explored, the people who have come and gone, births, deaths,

changes in fortune become precious and are as surely a part of

the book club as the reading list. A deceased member is recalled

each Christmas for her congealed cranberry salad, a founding

member, long dead, is still cited reverently as the last word on

Henry James.

Evolution, proliferation

There are many book clubs in Jacksonville. How many?

When Barbara Kaplan set out to contact book clubs to interest

their members in the Jacksonville Public Library's upcoming Much

Ado About Books event, she quickly put together a list of about

30 clubs.

"That was primarily a word of mouth thing. There are many more

than we know of," said Kaplan, whose own club, The Readers Club,

took over sponsorship and organization of Much Ado last year

when the event's future seemed in peril.

Book clubs are a phenomenon of the 20th century.

Novelist Margaret Atwood speculates in the foreword to Ellen

Slezak's The Book Group Book (Chicago Review Press, $12) that

book clubs branched from the same roots as the 18th century

salon and Victorian "improvement societies."

The number of book clubs has gotten a boost over the past

several years from the advent of mega-bookstores which, along

with some independent booksellers, have encouraged the gathering

of readers. …

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