The Final Chapter on Rye’s 30 Book Clubs

Book selection tends to be a democratic process for most clubs. A few let one or two members do the selecting, but most work it out among the whole group, usually at the end of a meeting.

Published December 16, 2011 6:22 PM
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Book selection tends to be a democratic process for most clubs. A few let one or two members do the selecting, but most work it out among the whole group, usually at the end of a meeting.

 

By Allen Clark

Part I of this article was published in our last issue, December 6.

 

Book selection tends to be a democratic process for most clubs. A few let one or two members do the selecting, but most work it out among the whole group, usually at the end of a meeting. “The process is random but seems to work,” one said. A designated club member sends out an email to remind everyone about the next book and venue. One club said they also include a brief update on what the past discussion involved, keeping those not able to attend updated. The most unusual selection we found was a men’s club reading and critiquing one of its member’s novel-in-progress.

We encountered little evidence of difficulties related to specific titles or types of books. The one exception was a women’s club member who noted, “A small percentage of our members like to read really depressing or oppressive books. The majority is trying to get away from that theme…”

 

Rye has three book clubs that include both men and women. One has a special twist. Five couples meet over dinners at the various members’ homes, five or six times a year (less frequently in the winter when some members are away).

 

According to one member, “They’re so well done, no thrown-together pizza nights; it’s a dinner party, with great conversation
and enthusiasm. Most importantly, we enjoy each other’s company.” They discuss the book and author during cocktails, sometimes on through dinner, when they also discuss what the next book will be, mostly classics. Last time featured “The Shadow of Wind”, the 2001 best-selling novel by Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Next up is “Persuasion”, Jane Austen’s last completed novel.

 

Book length is a concern for about one-third of the clubs. In most, many or sometimes all members are working or have tight schedules through the week. Books of 300 pages or more can present problems. Some groups actively try to find fiction and nonfiction of less than 250 pages, not always an easy matter. “I’d rather read shorter books and think about them than stretch to finish longer ones,” commented one member. “Occasionally, some will ‘finish’ a book via SparkNotes,” one club reported. “But no one is chastised for not finishing. Although that rarely happens, no one stays away because they haven’t finished it. No one wants to miss the discussion!”

 

There are other clubs that tackle major works. One is dedicated to the classics. It’s also the one group sponsored by a local club, Shenorock Shore Club. (Three other groups meet at clubs – Coveleigh, Apawamis, and a second, independent one at Shenorock – but the clubs do not sponsor the programs. The Shenorock club usually meets over wine and cheese, but has also worked with the club chef on dinners that match what is being read, e.g., Laotian, Parisian).

 

The SSC Classics Book Club uses a paid moderator and combines the session with lunch. Among the titles they’ve read are “Swann’s Way”, “Moby Dick”, and “Anna Karenina”, all challenging lengths not to mention content. “We love our facilitator! Even if you come to the meeting having hated the book, you leave with a deep appreciation of its literary value and a much improved understanding of the content.”

 

Another book club’s recent pick was “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, at 800-plus pages. “We don’t necessarily choose books based on length,” said their coordinator, “although I have a feeling our next book will be (much) shorter.”

 

In terms of managing meetings, with only a few exceptions, clubs claimed to have had little difficulty keeping the conversation on track. The Resurrection group has the most formalized approach. The meeting begins with ‘the circle’, said leader Wendy Bresnahan. “Each member has the opportunity to comment briefly. Not until each member has had their turn is the discussion opened to all. I try to gently move the discussion on when anyone speaks too long.”

 

Most clubs average about one-and-a-half hours on the book. But as noted in part one of this article, the meetings also provide a chance to “catch up” and see who’s up to what. “We digress to other topics (kids, schools, etc.) at times,” said one group head. “This can happen more if the group for that month is larger than normal, which can lead to side conversations. We are all there for a common purpose, however, and it’s easy to get back on topic.” Just one club indicated, “Only a short time of the meeting is used to discuss the book. Personally, I wish we would talk about the book a little more.”

 

In many clubs, the discussion often expands beyond narrow book-review points, like style and character development, into issues triggered by something in the book or something a member brings up tangentially. This is not the “what are you up to” kind of diversion and in fact is considered a valuable part of the process by many. “We always find things to talk about,” said Letty Caplan about the library’s Thursday afternoon club.  “Many times, we find ourselves embroiled in conversations that have nothing to with the book. We’re all compatible. We have a member from Egypt, another from Belgium, another from England and a couple from New York and other states – it gives us a broad viewpoint.”

 

We asked if there were occasions when someone monopolized the conversation. This is not a problem, it appears, although one person said, “Our book club is very easy-going except for one particular person who makes others feel very uncomfortable with her ‘I am always right’ attitude. When she’s not there, everyone expresses herself freely and generally has a great time. “

 

In some clubs, the host is assigned the role of setting up the discussion with a bit of background and then to speak up if conversation strays. “Sometimes, someone has some strong opinions about a book, but that doesn’t generally carry over to the next meeting,” said one member.

 

We also asked if any clubs had ever brought in someone special for a specific meeting. Very few had, although a couple said it was worth considering. One men’s club recently hired a lecturer from Yale, who has spoken at the library several times, to talk about “The Great Gatsby” and lead the discussion. They invited their spouses (most of them also currently belong to an existing women’s book club.) The meeting was shifted to Sunday noontime. Around 30 persons listened to the guest speaker for 45 minutes, then broke for a 30-minute brunch, and finished up with 45 minutes of Q & A. The results were so positive the group now plans to bring the lecturer back three times a year.

One of the women’s clubs held a couples evening last year and arranged to bring in the main character of the book, “Our Man from Tehran” by Robin Wright. According to one of the members, “The story is about Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor’s efforts to hide six Americans and spirit them out of Iran during the Iran hostage crisis. We had a fabulous evening hearing Ambassador Taylor and his wife talk about this fascinating time in history.” A couple of other clubs have invited local authors to attend their meetings when one of their books was being read.

 

Along this same line, we asked if clubs ever built on a book via further research or reading, taking trips, etc.? Most had not. One club, which had invited a member’s brother who was curating a major show at the Guggenheim (“Chaos and Classicism”) to attend a meeting about “Seven Days in the Art World” by Sarah Thornton, followed up by attending the opening of that exhibit in the city. Another said, “After reading ‘The Lady & The Unicorn’ by Tracy Chevalier, we took a trip to the Cloisters to see the tapestries.” Another said, “We’ve been to a few book readings by authors of books we’ve read.” Colum McCann, author of “Let the Great World Spin”, and Elizabeth Strout, author of “Olive Kitteridge”, were two recent examples.

 

Some other “extracurricular” activities include one club that, once a year in summer, holds a potluck dinner held at their shore club. Popeye’s fried chicken is the main course. Another woman, who started her book club in the early 1990s, said, “Once a year, we have a wine-and-appetizer party/book club at Picnic Point at American Yacht Club; another time, we met in a restaurant for dinner and discussion. We just did that at Le Pain Quotidien. It was very nice.” Another all-female group invited their husbands to the Christmas meeting. The book they read for that dinner meeting was “The Old Man and the Sea”.

 

The most unusual venue may belong to Rye’s newest club, a men’s-only group sponsored by the Rye Newcomers and Neighbors Club, a sort of sister book club to the long-running RNNC women’s one. Started this past January the club meets every six to eight weeks at Kelly’s Sea Level for food, beverages, and conversation. The one exception so far was moving to the Tiki Restaurant as a “more appropriate” venue for that month’s read: “Unfamiliar Fishes,” a history of Hawaii by Sarah Vowel. Currently run by Alain Groenendaal, the club now has some dozen members, in the 30s- to 50s-age bracket, with six to eight attending each meeting. The focus originally was on nonfiction, but the choices have moved toward an even split.

 

Their first read was Keith Richard’s autobiography “Life.” Upcoming is “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed” by John Vaillant. According to Groenendaal, “We typically spend 30 minutes to an hour talking about the book, and the rest about topics that spin off of the book, or just catching up with what each of us is doing. The discussion of ‘Life’ led to a discussion of favorite bands, classic concert experiences each of us had, how the music industry has changed so fundamentally, etc.”

 

Groenendaal started this club because he’d been a member of a book club in the city and had become disenchanted, primarily because the book was chosen by the woman who ran the club “with little or no input from the other members.” At a Newcomers event in October last year, he started asking guys if they were readers and would be interested in starting a club, and the club was born. The wives of many of the members are also in book clubs, “but those are really (intentionally or not) just for women.”

 

This raises the question of why there are more women’s than men’s clubs. One responder questioned, “In theory, why should reading be gender-based?” Actually, there is some research documenting that 55% of women “read literature” compared to only 38% of men. One of the interesting comments we received was: “Oh, we could talk about this one. I think most book clubs are either autocratically run by a leader or are very democratic, where members share their opinions and everyone’s ideas are equally relevant. Frankly, most men are not used to that kind of setting.”

 

We probed the question of membership. We only found one or two cases where a person wanting to join had been refused. The issue of “Can I get in?” was well explained by one club coordinator. “We carefully consider new members and usually invite them as guests first. This is not elitist, just in the interest of getting a good working group with no personality clashes.”

 

Clearly, these are called book clubs because they’re clubs. Almost by definition, the groups like to find like-minded people, starting with friends and neighbors. And social interaction is as important as the books and the ensuing discussion.

 

Finally, we asked how many members get their books from libraries, how many buy books (new or used), and how many use Kindles. Use of digital devices was as high as one-third to almost one-half in several clubs and 100% in one. Lauren Miscimarra related that at the most recent SSC Classics Book Club meeting, “Sixty percent are using a Kindle or iPad, 20% get it from the library, and 20% buy it.” There are others where the number is still very low. Which appropriately leads to news that Arcade, Rye’s faithful bookseller, has just told The Rye Record that it will give any book-club member a 20% discount on book selections – soft-cover as well as hard. Just mention your club’s name.

 

And with that, “Happy Pages to All, and to All a Good Night!”

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