In my living room, the book club members always take the same seats. Now that we haven’t met in person for some time, it’s comforting for me to picture us: Arlene in the armchair by the window; Terri in the rocking chair by the piano; Sarah and I sharing the couch, she on the left, me on the right. We never decided who would sit where; in perhaps our only wordless decision, it just evolved. We drink tea and eat something home-baked and talk and talk and talk, primarily about books and secondarily about everything. The chairs and couch are empty and waiting now, but not forever.
This year, my book club celebrates 32 years together: more than three decades of laughing, pleasantly arguing, and navigating great books and life’s milestones together. We’ve always been small enough to fit into my Honda Fit: In our first decade, we had a few comings and goings, but by our 10th anniversary we had settled in comfortably as a quartet. In a life that’s sometimes chaotic, my book group is a constant; a steady, shining glow on the horizon, a place of comfort and joy. Books, friends, cake, conversation — for a few hours every month or so, nothing else matters.
Within that little world of Arlene and Terri and Sarah and me, we’ve traveled through centuries of literature, across continents via the pages; a tiny, bobbing boat, just the four of us. I knew that out there on that same sea were many other book groups, who met like us in living rooms and maybe were a little more organized than we were. (We were notoriously bad at remembering whose turn it was to host, until after about two decades, one of us had the game-changing realization that we could just take turns alphabetically.) But I figured maybe we were among the older groups out there — 32 years seemed like a lot — and I always meant to write about us, someday.
When I heard recently about a local book club about to celebrate its 45th anniversary, the moment seemed right to write about the subject. But it seemed prudent to cast the net out a bit, so I put a notice in The Seattle Times a few weeks ago, asking longtime book clubs (30+ years) to get in touch. I thought maybe I’d hear from a few dozen.
My friends, never underestimate the power of Book Club World.
At last count, I’d heard from some 175 local clubs — which is, surely, just the tip of the literary iceberg; all are long-term (about 40 have been meeting for 40 years or more!). I’d asked for very simple information — how long has your group been around, how many members, what kind of books do you read — but what I received was an outpouring of long, detailed emails sharing something profoundly important in that person’s life, meticulously explaining how each group was born, what the gatherings felt like, why they mattered.
Just one sample, from Annette Quayle, whose Queen Anne club has been meeting for 30 years: “I texted the members about this opportunity,” she wrote, “prompting 44 texts that included hilarious memories of a fire, a dropped pie, authors who joined our club for our discussion, and then segueing into someone’s mom who fell and drawing on our current book (‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande) for information. As you can tell, Ms. Macdonald, I love love love our book club and the remarkable women in it.”
As I made my way through those many, many emails, and browsed the attached reading lists and smiling group photos and digital scrapbooks, I realized that I wanted to join every one of these book clubs. Because right now, book clubs are more important than ever. We’re all needing connection and community, needing to be in a room — be it real or virtual — where love and support and laughter are close at hand, where you’ve been meeting for so many years that you don’t remember why you’re sitting where you’re sitting. You just know that you belong there.
For my book club, and perhaps yours, the books are the spine, but the friendship is the heart. As Jenifer Katahira wrote in a document celebrating her club’s 40th anniversary (it’s now at 49 years), “As we read and read and read, we have experienced the truth that books enrich our lives, and books shared and reflected upon with friends, doubly so.”
There’s no registry or clearinghouse for book clubs, so there’s no way to know how many are out there, eating cake and arguing about “A Gentleman in Moscow” (what am I saying; everyone loves that book). But, lacking the ability to teleport myself into 175 book clubs, I spoke to a few of them, hoping to shine a little light on their quiet world.
“It’s so much more than reading the book”
“Words cannot really explain or describe or convey the emotional attachment to the women in this group, for me,” Helen Harris told me of her book club, The Bookclub Seattle, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. A group that reads exclusively Black authors, Harris’ club began for the same reason many do: Thirty years ago, its founder, Edna Nunn, pulled together some folks who she knew liked to read. They’ve had as many as 17 members and are currently an even dozen, meeting pre-pandemic in living rooms and the occasional restaurant. Now they’re on Zoom, which works fine, Harris says, “but I miss the hugs.”
Though they have read hundreds of books and especially love the work of J. California Cooper and Walter Mosley, “it’s so much more than reading the book,” Harris said. “The book is kind of like an excuse now to get together and share our life experiences. … People have gotten married and divorced, they’ve had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren; we’ve been going through experiences on our jobs, retiring, changing professions; we’ve had several people with health emergencies, a couple of deaths, one of our members’ daughter just died last year. The whole gamut of life.”
Harris’ club has written a book together: “Life Matters,” a collection of essays about their life experiences, published for the group’s 25th anniversary. And their experiences go beyond their living rooms: They’re traveled together, visiting the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; taken the train to Portland to meet Cooper; and shared their insights with the greater community, leading discussions at libraries both of their own book and of “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett. “We had to turn people away!” Harris remembered of the latter event.
Though many clubs start out as Harris’ did — a gathering of like-minded friends — book clubs are born in many ways. I heard from numerous clubs that started as groups of mothers with young children; the kids, in many cases, are now middle-aged. Some were formed by co-workers who enjoyed getting together outside of work; neighbors wanting to get to know each other; people seeking community after divorce or illness; clubs formed via an organization such as a church or a library; men who envied, or got kicked out of, their wives’ book clubs.
For those curious about gender — stereotypically, book clubs are a women’s preserve — the groups I heard from were approximately 75% all-women, 20% men and women together, and 5% all-men.
“The book group is my family”
One all-male group that’s been around quite a while is The PageBoys (sometimes called PageBoyz, depending on whom you ask), a book club for gay men founded in the early 1990s, originally drawn from members of Seattle Men’s Chorus and Seattle Frontrunners. Lee Kramer, who’s been a member for 20 years, says there are currently about 80 names on the roster, though only about 25 regularly take part in discussions. (The rest, he said, are primarily interested in the club’s book list.)
“For us, and especially during the pandemic, it’s a connection,” he said. “Especially for guys who are living on their own, for them it’s a real lifeline, a social lifeline. It keeps them engaged in the community.” Though pre-pandemic meetings involved cocktails and elaborate meals, it was the conversation that was the true feast.
“The best discussions are over books where there’s a disagreement — some guys really liked it, some didn’t,” Kramer said. “Those seem to spark the kind of discussion that people learn stuff from — at least I do. They give me a different way to look at something, a burst of ‘oh, that’s what that was about, I didn’t think of it that way.’”
A member sent me a copy of The PageBoys’ inaugural newsletter; its first books were Michael Cunningham’s “A Home at the End of the World” and Bruce Bawer’s “A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society.” “Participating in The PageBoys will give you the discipline of a deadline,” the newsletter wrote. “And much else besides. Good eats. Good conversation. New chums. New knickknacks.” (Wait, why doesn’t my club have knickknacks?)
And feminism was the driving force behind a number of longtime all-women groups. Karen Binder, whose unnamed Seattle book club (“We just call it Book Group”) began in 1975 and still has all its original members, said her group originally came together to discuss books by and about women, inspired by contemporary figures like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. They’ve since pivoted to reading a wide variety of books; Binder said she especially loved the discussions inspired by Wallace Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
“The book group is my family,” Binder said, in words echoed by countless other book club members. “They’re the people I go to for everything and anything. We walk together, we talk, we support each other. If we’re ill, we pass the information around, we bring food. We take care of one another, in a magical way.”
“It’s opened up worlds”
Many book clubs invited me to sit in on a virtual meeting; while all sounded tempting, I only took up one invitation: the Low Vision Book Group, facilitated by Seattle Public Library, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. That group, which normally meets in person at the downtown branch and then heads out for “After Group Soup,” now meets by conference call during the pandemic. I listened in as about 20 members laughed and caught up.
The club was started by Camille Jassny (who’s still a member) and Patt Copeland in 2006; Jassny, on the conference call, remembered making an appointment to see Cleo Brooks, an SPL librarian who’s head of the Library Equal Access Program. Jassny described being frustrated at the time, since losing her sight, with sighted groups who talked about books. “We thought if we could start a low-vision book group, it would include a lot of people who have been isolated,” she said.
With Brooks providing assistance and inspiration, the group has been meeting at SPL for 15 years, obtaining books — most recently the memoir “Half Broke” by Ginger Gaffney — through the Washington State Talking Book & Braille Library, which supplies a cassette with recordings of a year’s worth of choices. (The club chooses 11, and the 12th is always SPL’s Seattle Reads selection.) And the club has served as a connector for members to other groups: a low-vision support group run by Jassny, a yoga group, outings to musicals at the 5th Avenue Theatre and other cultural events. It creates, in a word, community.
“It’s just a wonderful connection, not only around books but relating around having the differences of vision,” said member Geri Traeckens; the group has a variety not only of viewpoints but of actual vision (some are completely blind, others have low vision). Jeff Abrams agreed, noting that he had been “siloed in science fiction reading” for a long time, “but now I’ve branched out and it’s opened up worlds. I think I’ve become more patient listening to other people’s opinions.”
Adjusting to Zoom
Though book clubs mostly tend to meet in members’ homes, offering some sort of food and drink, they differ widely in what kinds of books they read (a few random picks from my email bag: bestsellers; Arab literature; Shakespeare’s plays, “historical fiction with a global perspective,” Black, Indigenous and people of color [BIPOC] authors, mysteries). And there’s a variety of formats: Some groups, like mine, are casual and unstructured; others have a more set format with scheduled time for socializing and book talk. Some get together once a year to choose the year’s books; some go book by book, letting hosts choose or voting on each selection.
But all of them have something in common: none have met in person this winter, due to the pandemic (though many held socially distant outdoor meetings in warmer weather). Adjusting to Zoom took a little time in most cases; the trick, Harris said, is “really taking turns to speak. When you’re physically gathered, people tend to jump in with their thoughts. But on Zoom you can’t do that, you’ll miss what somebody is saying.”
Binder, whose group has moved up to weekly meetings since the pandemic began, said that being on Zoom has improved attendance. “Almost everybody shows up every week — a wonderful thing about Zoom, unlike meeting once a month, when we usually have six people show up. I think it’s just the greatest.”
“People adapted pretty fast,” said Mardie Rhodes of her 40-year book club’s transition to Zoom. “The first time I saw those 12 faces pop up on my screen, I got teary.”
As did I, the first time my own group met virtually. We were in four corners of a screen, not in our regular corners of my living room, but the intelligence and kindness and wit of these women, whom I am so lucky to call my friends, shone through. Highlights from our years of book conversation flicker before me, and twinkle from my shelves: We’ve read a lot of Virginia Woolf; we loved Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” for which Sarah came up with a brilliant interpretation; we all have a weakness for Penelope Lively; and only Arlene has finished every single book every time — she likes to be called the Cal Ripken of our book club. And I think often of a beautifully star-garnished raspberry pie made by Terri, and so many other lovingly baked treats.
My book club met last Sunday on Zoom, like we always do these days (like Binder’s group, we’ve graduated to once-a-week meetings during the pandemic, just to help each other through). For the first time I thought of all the other book clubs meeting at the same time, all over the city, talking about books and lifting each other’s spirits and just being together, sparkling like a sky full of stars, lighting up the darkness. And I knew that this story would ultimately be a love letter to my book club — and to yours. May we all shine on.