During my junior year of high school, my local public library hosted a lecture and book club series on Southern literature featuring presentations by local professors, avid readers, and library staff. Because the book club sought an intergenerational group of participants, they approached my high school English teacher and asked her to recommend a student to lead one of the discussions, and she, in turn, asked me. She handed me a list of titles, and because I saw myself as a staunch individualist (I’d been reading a lot of John Muir), I passed over such classic titles as To Kill a Mockingbird and As I Lay Dying in favor of a novel with an unassuming title written by an author I’d never heard of: The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman. Although a 1964 Kirkus review of the novel describes Dykeman’s debut novel as “plainspoken as its subject” and “artful in its simplicity”, there is nothing plain or simple about its heroine, Lydia McQueen, a woman whose dedication to her family, community, and the mountain she calls home is articulated in lovely prose that illuminates the connections between Lydia and the Land.
Unfortunately, whenever I am called upon to speak before an audience, a sort of localized amnesia sets in, and I usually can’t recall a word I’ve said. This occasion was no different, so while I can’t tell you much about our book discussion, I can definitively say that The Tall Woman changed my life. Until I read it, I believed as George Ella Lyon once did that culture happens somewhere else, somewhere in cities and exotic locales far removed from the rural Tennessee Valley town where I was raised. Although it would take moving to coastal North Carolina, some 600 miles from my home in the Appalachian foothills and the people who choose to build lives in the outstretched palms of those mountains, Wilma Dykeman’s novel was the spark that started a journey of discovering my voice, my home, and my happiness. I don’t believe that my experience is unique, but that is precisely why it is important. Our book club experiences are at once personal and collective, sometimes connecting us more deeply to others and sometimes giving us the opportunity to connect more deeply with ourselves.
Living in the post-Oprah book club era, it can be easy to discount the work that book clubs have been accomplishing for a few hundred years—at least since the proliferation of reading societies in Germany during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. To be fair, even before Oprah’s Book Club, even before the Book-of-the-Month Club came into existence, critics scoffed at the merit of book-centered gatherings. For instance, public perception of African-American literary societies at the turn of the 20th century dismissed them as being about nothing but talk, seen as strictly trivial, largely vacuous, and essentially social. Today, we are spoiled with choice for book clubs. According to a recent New York Times article entitled “Really? You’re not in a book club?”, with an estimated 5 million Americans participating annually, you can find a book club to suit nearly every taste, and if there isn’t one in your general vicinity, you can always find one online via services like Booktalk and Goodreads. Even book club devotees may feel that some book clubs are merely a place where ailing marriages,high-achieving kids and kitchen renovations [are] just as likely to be topics of discussion as the nuances of Daniel Deronda while others exist as much to indulge gastronomic tie-ins as to celebrate literary merit.
These may be valid criticisms, but where these critiques fail is in describing what the modern book club is, and they offer no answer to what a book club can mean.
Simply put, each meeting of your book club is an opportunity to talk about a book. Your compatriots may decide to talk about more immediate personal concerns or y’all may decide to serve book-themed food, but the fact remains that your book club provides the chance (whether you take it or not) to transform the usually solitary practice of reading into a shared community experience.
You might love your book club because you agree with Thomas Wolfe that you can't go home again (each time you go the people are different or the atmosphere is different), and you love the unique and spontaneous quality that infuses each meeting, the way your book club is born anew each time you go. Or you might love your book club because you agree with William Faulkner that the past is never dead (sometimes it seems like all the books you read are intertwined and the book discussions always seem to make their way back to the same themes), and you love how the stories of the people who attend and the characters in the books surface and resurface again and again in a way that binds them to one another and to you, becoming part of your past as well. And if you were hoping for something a little more high-minded, I would also agree that no matter why you love your book club (even if it’s just the brownies or the gossip), when we get together on a literary pretense, we’re participating in the great tradition of sharing information that is meaningful to us—as a culture and as members of the human race. Your book club may even change your life.
No matter what kind of book clubber you are, hopefully we have a book club that sparks your interest. In 2015, the library will host three book clubs, each with their own unique flavor.
Brouhaha Book Club meets at Boondocks Brewing on the last Monday of each month at 5:30 PM. There is no assigned reading for this club. Just come prepared to tell the group about the diamonds and the dregs that you’ve read during the last month. Sometimes there’s an impromptu discussion if several attendees have read the same book or if someone is particularly interested in some aspect of a particular book or reading habits in general. Sometimes you get a great recommendation for your next read. And even if you haven’t read a thing, come anyway and enjoy an evening with other folks who love to read. To find out more about this book club, visit the LibGuide.
The Centennial Book Club meets at Hotel Tavern on the fourth Tuesday of each month of at 6:00 PM. This year-long book club celebrates West Jefferson’s Centennial Year by reading a popular novel from each decade of our town’s first 100 years in existence. February’s novel is classic spy thriller TheThirty-Nine Steps (1915) by John Buchan. In March, join us to discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 (although it didn’t reach its height of popularity until quite a bit later). To see all of the Centennial selections and learn more about this limited-time-only book club, visit the LibGuide.
Wellness Circle is a hybrid book club and lecture series that meets at Ashe County Public Library on the second Tuesday of each month at 11:30 AM. There is no assigned reading for this club. Each quarter, Wellness Circle focuses on one of the seven dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, spiritual, occupational, social, environmental, and intellectual. Participants are encouraged to read books that correspond to the wellness dimension for the current session, and each meeting features a guest speaker who gives a presentation or a demonstration on a topic related to the type of wellness under discussion. For the first quarter of 2015, Wellness Circle will focus on Spiritual Wellness. In February, Suzanne (our County Librarian) and Sarah (our Adult Services Librarian) will discuss and demonstrate the practice of journaling for spiritual wellness. In March, join J. Dana Trent as she discusses her award-winning memoir, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk. To find out more about this book club, visit the LibGuide. For book recommendations on the seven dimensions of wellness, visit the library's Riffle site.
So you say none of these book clubs suit you? Start your own and hold your meetings at the library. We’d love to join you! Call 336.846.2041 x227 to book one of our meeting rooms.