Whether you think Oprah’s Book Club is a populist travesty of pseudo-literary proportions, or an important remedy to the ongoing death of reading, you can’t argue with the facts: According to BookMovement, an online resource for people organizing their own groups, there are five million book club members in the United States. I decided to be old fashioned about it, and explore a few book groups that meet at the library.
Location: NYPL, Tottenville, Staten Island. Book:Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy: The poet Lucy Grealy’s memoir about growing up and finding acceptance after a childhood bout with cancer left her with a third of her jaw missing.
In the southernmost tip of Staten Island, in a windowless room in the library basement, a reading group meets every month. The grey plastic chairs are set up in a circle, and Donald Laub, the branch’s general manager and the group’s moderator, leads the discussion under the hum of fluorescent lights. There are only two women in attendance, though one of them keeps assuring me “there are usually many more people.” Though they lack in numbers, these two senior citizens are eager to make up for it with an earnest desire to understand the book, showing a willingness to “get deep about it,” as one of the women puts it.
Donald, a former teacher, has led many discussion groups in various branches on Staten Island, and this one, he says, is one of his favorites. Most of the members are “just regular folks” who love reading. He, like all other NYPL moderators, is trained by the Great Books foundation in the “Shared Inquiry Method,” a way of fostering conversations without imposing your own opinions. There is a master list of books available for the group, and Donald tries to choose those he thinks will be of interest to his members. When he was younger, he had disdain for bestsellers, but he claims to have become more open to different reading experiences. The book list, however, focuses mostly on contemporary classics.
The women highly recommend the month’s choice. When one of the women is asked if she was shocked by the fact the author later developed a heroin addiction and died at age 39 of a drug overdose, she replies: “Am I shocked? No. Nothing shocks me.” Not all of the members are as savvy. A few years ago, when reading Love in the Time of the Cholera, one of the women told Donald that Love in the Time of FORNICATION would have been more apt as title. For the most part though, Donald says the members are seasoned readers, open to various perspectives and experiences.
Location: Riverside Branch, 65th St and Amsterdam Ave, Manhattan Book:Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: The author’s Pulitzer Prize winning second novel is narrated by a hermaphrodite coming to terms with his/her own identity.
Despite the rain, the conference room is packed with about 15 elderly ladies, and one man — a stony-faced husband who has clearly been dragged here against his will. The discussion begins with the moderator’s question of whether or not inbreeding is a good idea — very diplomatically, the women assert that it is not. Hemophilia is cited repeatedly as a reason. “It is a scientific fact that brothers and sisters shouldn’t breed,” one of them says cautiously. Nobody invokes morality, they’re sticking to facts.
After everyone has conceded that intermarriage is ill advised, the conversation moves on to the difference between transgendered people and hermaphrodites. They are extremely knowledgeable on the subject. One of them explains it is a difference in hormones, and another interrupts to give a more thorough explanation. “My son is a geneticist…” she claims proudly.
One woman, with a thick Yiddish accent, talks about “the overtone of fatalism” in the book. The nature of fiction is also addressed when one particularly distraught looking woman suggests the author was “really taking liberties” by inserting made-up characters into actual historical moments. The rest of the group responds to this with general sounds of protest, shaking their heads emphatically and disapprovingly. A woman next to her tries to explain the group’s stance, whispering loudly that fiction is all about taking such liberties. “But can’t he get sued?” The woman asks, lost in the sea of glares.
As in the Staten Island group, the focus stayed tightly on the book, with the exception of one woman’s digression about attending high school with Philip Roth. The moderator was extremely soft spoken and appeared slightly nervous. The discussion seemed to flow without much guidance, and the study guide printouts saw very little use.
Location: Mercantile Library, E. 47th St, Manhattan Book:Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos: A modernist classic set in 1920’s New York, explores the lives of characters from disparate classes.
The Mercantile Library is a membership library, and this book group is, at least according to its members, the oldest continuously run group in New York City. Unlike the many other discussion groups run by the library, this one allows its members to choose the material — currently, the theme is American literature from the 1920s and 1930s, an era which at least one of the members says she remembers quite well.
The Library Director commands obvious respect from the participants. Aside from being knowledgeable, she is, perhaps more importantly, skillful at eliciting interesting comments from the shy, and gliding over the less-than-interesting opinions from those unafraid to give them.
Many of the members have been attending the group regularly for almost a decade. The newest addition, who started going five months ago, raves about how much better it is than any other group she’s been to in the past: “Here we sit down and talk about the book. At the other places we would spend half the time talking about why nobody read the book, and the other half about what kind of operations they had gotten.”
Sitting around the big wooden table in the Director’s office, the members discuss Dos Passos’s unexpected uses of colors, the book’s kaleidoscopic structure and its socialist undertones — it seems that every single person in the room was at one point a Socialist, or at least, as one woman keeps repeating, had “Socialist Uncles.” The format and tone of the group is reminiscent of a college discussion section. And as in any college discussion, there is always one person who talks too much without really saying anything… and other people passing notes in judgment. As one of the members, arm enthusiastically outstretched, launches into another tangent on her distaste for Cubism, I watch a gray-haired woman impatiently jot down her feelings on the matter and pass it to the man beside me.
For all the paranoia about print as a dying medium, the fact that so many people come together regularly to talk about books is encouraging. No matter what age they might be. •