Read Any Good Books Lately? Dozens, Actually, if You’re A Member of One of Rye’s Book Clubs

Long known for its golf and beach clubs, Rye is also home to at least 30 active book clubs. While they have much in common, they also have distinct personalities, reading interests, and protocol. For six months, this writer has been trying to locate and talk to as many clubs as possible.

Published December 5, 2011 9:49 PM
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Long known for its golf and beach clubs, Rye is also home to at least 30 active book clubs. While they have much in common, they also have distinct personalities, reading interests, and protocol. For six months, this writer has been trying to locate and talk to as many clubs as possible.

 

By Allen Clark

Long known for its golf and beach clubs, Rye is also home to at least 30 active book clubs. While they have much in common, they also have distinct personalities, reading interests, and protocol. For six months, this writer has been trying to locate and talk to as many clubs as possible.

The clubs range from as many as 30 members to as few as six, age 20 something to over 80. The majority of the clubs were self-started, but a number are sponsored by local institutions: two by churches, one by a private club, three by the library, and two by the newcomers’ club. Book clubs are predominantly a female business, but there are four men’s groups and three mixed.

 

Almost all meet monthly, although a few are less frequent during the summer months or when the selection is especially long. Most (21) meet at members’ homes, rotating through the year; one meets at Kelly’s Sea Level. They meet at all hours of the day.

 

The oldest club we found has been in existence for perhaps a quarter century. One-third have been going for ten or more years, seven fewer than three years, and the rest between three and nine years. One of the youngest is a club set up three years ago for Irish-born residents in Rye.

 

Another is a women’s club that formed recently after a previous incarnation petered out, and some of the former members created a new group that has been very successful. Another new one is slated to open in January at Rye Presbyterian Church.

 

book4Everyone we talked to recognized the opportunity for members to discover and read books they wouldn’t normally pick up. One men’s group recently read “Martin Luther: A Life” by Martin Marty. The 13 members that night said they would not have selected it on their own – “Not in a million years,” said one – but virtually all were glad they read it. The routine of a club schedule and the regimen of specific books gets all book club members to cast a wider net than left to their own, individual proclivities. “Having my reading choices stretched by others,” is how one member expressed it.

 

But the social aspect of book clubs is equally important. On one level, the clubs provide a nice excuse for getting together once a month with like-minded friends and neighbors. While discussion of the book at hand accounts for a large part of the time, there’s a chance to catch up on what your friends are doing, thinking and planning. The occasions also let each member see his or her friends or acquaintances in an expanded context. For many, the time afforded and specific subjects give everyone a chance to be heard and thereby broaden his or her personality or image.

 

One all-women’s-club member said, “We’re a group of ladies that enjoy each other’s company under the pretext of something called Book Club. We all have busy schedules, and if we didn’t have the club, it would be easy for us not to get together. This allows our friendship to continue while doing something we all enjoy.” Another added that her club gave her a chance to meet people she probably would not have met before.

 

book2Another take on this quality of book clubs: “The two main reasons I like our book club is it is a chance to get together with lovely women whom I love dearly, and it motivates us to read, which I feel is important. We spend about 45 minutes to an hour discussing the book and then change topics. We talk about life, family, friends, travel, sex, anything really.” Expanding on that point, another woman, who started a club in the mid-1990s, said, “I think of it as intellectual intimacy, which is not common nowadays. One shares many personal experiences, rather than just touting facts from the latest New York Times article, to back up a point one is making about something in the book…. It’s important to us, as we really have grown up together. What we say definitely stays within the group. I have never known that unwritten rule to be broken.”

 

Each club’s reading list defines the club better than any name or moniker (most have no name). Those that focus on the classics and/or serious historical/socio/ political works might be labeled literary or academic in their selections and discussions. Those that tend to read what’s popular at the time, including best sellers, both fiction and nonfiction, might be seen as less demanding, more relaxed groups. The range of recent reads runs from Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” to “Bossy Pants” by Tina Fey, from “The Korean War” by Bruce Cummings to “Little Bee” by Chris Cleave.

 

One member said he likes his club because it brings him back in touch with novels or short stories he read in college, “…often providing new insights and understanding.” Another said that in college he read nonfiction almost exclusively, a habit he continued as he entered business. Now, he’s “thrilled” to discover the world of fiction. Another man said, “I like getting to know fellow Rye residents in a deeper way… getting to know others… a little like a college fraternity, I guess.”

 

book1There are strictly nonfiction clubs, others that alternate fiction and nonfiction, and some primarily fiction. Only a few clubs indicated that they read just one or the other. One men’s club alternates each month, with the fiction encompassing short stories – contemporary (e.g., William Trevor, Alice Munro) and classic (e.g., Chekov, James Joyce) – and short novels or novellas – mostly drawn from past authors. The nonfiction choices have been primarily recent works, ranging from books on Custer’s last stand to works on current and future problems at home and abroad.

 

One of the women’s clubs commented, “We recently read ‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James and decided to keep going with the roles of women…. We were due to read the Man Booker prize winner ‘The Finkler Question’ next, but decided to shelve that to continue our theme and chose Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’”. Other clubs have also sometimes followed themes in their selections over a period of months. “We’ll read anything except self-help books,” said another person. A third women’s group said, “We try to read discussable books…. stay away from bestsellers pretty much. We like some history and biography. We seem to enjoy books of historical fiction based in far away places like China, Afghanistan, Japan, India.” Another said, “We make a real effort to choose award-winning books: Booker, Orange, Penn Faulkner, Nobel, etc. We decided quite a few years ago that we would always read one classic a year.” But many others like reading what is on the best-seller list. There are a few that like to read memoirs and new popular novels like “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarty or “A Secret Kept” by Tatiana de Rosnay. One club “tries to keep to paperbacks; if a book is too big, we just know our book club would not read it.”

 

book3The Rye Free Reading Room hosts three adult clubs, all open to the public. The longest running is the Book Café, which meets at the library on the first Friday every month at 10:30 a.m. Started by Iris Fisher in the late 1990s, it has had perhaps the widest range of members by age, from 20s to 80s. Its mission is to bring together interesting, thoughtful people to discuss “timely and meaningful” books, more often than not fiction (like “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson) but also nonfiction (e.g., “The Lost City of Z” by Mamaroneck resident David Grann). While originally made up of men and women, the mix has shifted more to women. The current selection is “Vaclav and Lena,” a first novel by Haley Tanner.

 

The library’s Current Events Book Club, started earlier this year, meets the fourth Tuesday every month (6:30-8 p.m.), offering books that cover diverse opinions about world events – economic, political, social, and international. Moderator John Dolan of Greenwich says, “Anything that falls under the ‘Current Events’ label is fair game.” The October selection was “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization” by Steven Solomon. Their most recent selection was “Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World” by Michael Lewis. Attendance has ranged from four to a dozen and is currently about one-third women, two-thirds men.

 

Like all three of the library’s clubs, the Thursday Afternoon Book Group is open to both sexes but has been predominantly female, age 50 to 80-plus. It meets the first Thursday of each month at 1:15 p.m. According to  Letty Caplan, “The club has been an on-and-off thing, but we finally got our act together, and we’ve been meeting for about two years now…. We are quite eclectic and have read biographies, historical novels, and short story anthologies, but mostly novels. Some classics, from Jane Austen to Mark Twain to Pearl Buck, to more contemporary authors.” Its most recent selection was “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” by Jamie Ford.

 

There are two church-sponsored clubs. Resurrection’s started about six years ago “to provide a way to share our faith and perspectives as we read books together and hear God’s voice in our world,” said Wendy Seaver, who leads the meetings. They meet for one hour the first Monday of the month from October through June. For their December meeting, the group is reading “Traveling Mercies” by Anne Lamott.

 

The second group is at Christ’s Church. “We started in January 2009, when a group of people had read ‘The Shack’ by Canadian author William Young and wanted to discuss it,” said Rector Susan Harriss. “We thought we would only be reading the one book together but found we had a lot to say, and that it took several weeks. We liked it so much that we chose another book right away.” Eventually they shifted gears and became a hybrid book and Bible study group that meets Wednesdays at 10 a.m. “We generally read books that are faith-related; there is a fair amount of theological talk but also good conversation about people’s lives.”

 

While both clubs are open to men and women, Christ’s Church’s has evolved into a women’s group. The Resurrection one is mixed but mostly female. Both welcome newcomers. There also is a fairly new United Methodist Preschool club, but it’s not formally sponsored by the church.

This is the first of a two-part article. Part II will be published in the December 16 issue.

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