The Joy of Booking

By staff November 1, 2003

Lisa Rubinstein had a two-year-old and was just pregnant again when a friend told her about a book club she wanted to start with a handful of other young mothers. Thrilled at the thought of adult conversation and the chance to get out in the evening, Rubinstein agreed to join. The women, who knew each other casually from various community activities, decided they would meet at each other's houses every six weeks, and appoint one member to review the selected book. And rather than serving dinner (each one had a time-consuming resident toddler or two), they'd stick to coffee and dessert.

That was 26 years ago-and they're still at it.

Every six weeks, come deadlines at work or raging thunderstorms outside, Rubinstein and Sheila Weiss, Heather Spector, Barbara Ackerman, Donna Lerner, Ruth Fleegler, Rhona Kantor, and Phyllis Scheckner settle down in each other's living rooms to discuss, argue and enlighten each other about the passion they share for sinking their noses into the pages of a really good book.

"We're bonded now," says Rubinstein. "You don't dare leave."

They're one of the longest-lasting clubs in town, but they're not alone. All over the country and in Sarasota, book clubs are mushrooming. The American Association of University Women has one. So does the National Council for Jewish Women. The Newcomers Club. Jacaranda Library. Brandeis University Women's Club. Sarasota Bay Club. They're springing up in subdivisions, churches, offices, schools and libraries. Retirees and stay-at-home mothers belong to them, as do attorneys, realtors and librarians. One group of 14 doctor's wives meet at Barnes & Noble once a month to discuss books. Some book club members are English professors, retired teachers or writers with a lifelong immersion and expertise in the written word; others simply love to read and are looking for an excuse to do more of it.

"Book clubs have always been popular, but never to the extent they have been since Oprah Winfrey started her on-air book club," says Hester Jeswald, senior bookseller at Sarasota News and Books. Oprah Winfrey's book club not only exposed the masses to some serious literature-and turned Winfrey-recommended books into instant bestsellers-but also sparked a flurry of copycat clubs on the other television networks.

"There's no doubt about it," says Jeswald. "This phenomenon is never going to go away. People seem to have discovered the joys of sharing books."

Jeswald would know. She's Sarasota's book club guru, the person people often consult when selecting books or invite to moderate their discussions. Frequently people tell her they'd like to belong to a club, and she'll take down their names and numbers. Once she's collected 10 names, she has them call each other and form a club, and sometimes she helps lead discussions. She's already hooked up three book clubs that way. Every year at the Sarasota Reading Festival, Jeswald puts on a presentation about how to start and run a book club, and she gets audiences of 150 to 200, with the numbers growing every year. "There are new book clubs forming every day," Jeswald says.

When Patty Sileo, associate director of religious studies for St. Martha's Parish, started the No Name Book Club this March, she had a few more resources at hand than Rubinstein's group did 26 years ago.

"The Internet was our biggest asset," Sileo says. She went online to download calendars she brought to their first meeting at which the members-mostly mothers or teachers at St. Martha's-plotted out meeting times and the sequence of books they would read. She also went online for discussion guidelines for the various books. The group began aptly, with Beginner's Luck by Laura Pedersen.

"Book clubs cover every possible permutation of what's published," says Susan Rife, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's books editor and coordinator of the monthly newspaper book club. "I'm typically looking for fiction that is under the radar, that has not already been done to death."

Most book clubs seem to stick to a broad base of modern literary novels, interspersed with biographies and the occasional histories and classics. It seems as if just about every group has attacked either Bel Canto by Ann Patchett or Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni this year, and most clubs raise a literate nose in the air at the idea of picking a pulp bestseller.

With her book club, Lynn Harding has read everything from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Middlesex, a book about a Detroit hermaphrodite. But in Key West, where she used to live, she had friends who belonged to a book club that dealt only with the works of Virginia Woolf. Frank Troncale, community relations manager at Barnes & Noble, knows of a group that reads only about Southern women. The Philosophy Society meets twice a month at Troncale's store to discuss philosophical tomes, and every second Wednesday at Barnes & Noble is when mystery book lovers meet.

Some book clubs, like the one Harding belonged to in Key West, which was led by three literature professors, tend to have structured, fiery, highly intellectual discussions. "It was like going to college for free!" she laughs. But most are like the group she now belongs to in Sarasota-no less literate but more laid-back, though moderators keep talk from sliding away into purely social territory. Meetings usually take place at each other's houses or at restaurants or libraries. One group-the WWW, which stands for Wise Woman Words-meets at Robb & Stucky.

Most clubs designate one member to be the reviewer for the session, and that person's job is to read reviews about the book, research the author or sometimes even read other works by the author. Sometimes the reviewer is also the host, but in some book groups, the hosts already have their hands full. While many clubs opt for a simple coffee-and-desserts spread, others lay out lavish buffets or full meals. Employees at Barnes & Noble, for example, have their own book club, and their sessions often turn into international culinary sessions. Troncale explains that the host selects the book and themes the meal around the novel. When they read The Last Promise by Richard Paul Evans, for example, book club members feasted on Italian food inspired by the Florence setting. And a reading of Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle was accompanied by a finger-licking Mexican spread.

As a man, Troncale is a minority in the book club world. Men also belong to the Mystery Book club and the Philosophy Society's book club, and sometimes a spouse will come along to a particular book club session. There are also clubs formed by three or four couples who get together, but in general, the typical book club member is overwhelmingly female, and ranges in age from the mid to late 30s and up. Says Joyce Weisman, a 26-year veteran of a Massachusetts book club she founded, and now the chair of the Newcomers Club book group here in Sarasota: "There's a sociability that I think women need, as well as to have something for your brain, and I think [book clubs] answer that need."

That's why Lori Madden, who has a 10-year-old son, joined the No Name Club. She's belonged to an investment club and mahjong club, but this was her first venture into a book club. "It's the camaraderie of being with women my age to discuss something other than our kids," Madden says.

Most book club members cite the same reasons: the sociability, camaraderie and intellectualism of the activity. "I like the kind of people who are in book clubs," says Joan Donnelly, attorney and member of the Bay Plaza book club.

"If you are interested in literature, it's just the perfect way to connect with other women," says Judith Hennard, administrative director for the Museum of Asian Art and member of the Bay Plaza club. "Even if the book didn't resonate with me, I've learned something, and thank you for taking me somewhere I wouldn't have normally gone."

People who once scorned fiction find themselves exploring novels; others who snoozed through history class in school find themselves devouring Benjamin Franklin's biography.

"I've changed my reading habits," says Lynn Harding. "I didn't read modern fiction, and now I'm having a blast catching up on it. I would never have read Seabiscuit; I hate horse racing. But I did, and it's a great history of America."

Diane Slavkin belongs to two book clubs, WWW and the National Council for Jewish Women, and she says she's not only learned a lot from the books, but also from the pithy observations of the highly educated and well-traveled women who attend, like the woman who visited India and was able to bring a fresh perspective to Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. "Even if I don't think the book is that great, the discussion is often so terrific because people bring their own personality and insight to it," Slavkin says.

Over the 26 years they have met, Rubinstein's group says they've explored all sorts of subjects through the books. They conducted a question and answer session with an author online 10 years ago before such technology was commonplace, explored procedures and philosophies of childbirth when they read Midwives, and even invited a medium to a session when discussing a novel about life after death.

And during the process, they learned a lot about each other. The group of young mothers lost two members over the years when people moved away, and they also added three. They've learned each other's political beliefs and how to debate a point with the comfortable familiarity and banter of family, all the while raising their children and developing demanding careers-Rubinstein, for example, is the director of public relations at Lakewood Ranch. That baby she was carrying when the club began? She's a graphic designer living in New York City now, and the two-year-old is a garment importer in California. "And Sheila [Weiss] is having our first grandchild!" Rubinstein says.

They've endured not only because of the friendship, which Rubinstein says is "very very wonderful," or the intellectual stimulation, but also from a very basic urge that burns in all bookworms: to discover a book that invites you to delve in, stay absorbed for hours oblivious of the world outside, and emerge shaken. changed, and bursting with the desire to share the experience with like-minded souls. 

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