Eating up the pages
Book clubs in WNY
By Lisa Kane

Book Club

A joiner I’m not. Leagues, sororities, and other organized groups make me want to walk quickly the other way. But book clubs are different—how can regular evenings devoted to girlfriends, wine, and books be bad?

There are more book clubs than ever in Western New York. Many have been active for years but even more are of recent formation. Laurie Dean Torrell, executive director of Just Buffalo Literary Center, notes, “There does seem to be a post-9/11 upsurge in their popularity. The theory is that there is an increased hunger for connection and to talk about things that are meaningful. With book clubs, you get the literary and social benefits of discussing ideas. I don’t think we can have enough of that today.”

Book Club
L–R: Ed Hutton, Jeff Lebsack, Wayne Bacon, David Gorczynski, Joe Bell, Dr. Ravi Desai, Dr. Stephen Downing.
In Their Own Words:
THE LEAGUE OF ORDINARY
GENTLEMEN

Most recent book?
Michael Crichton’s State of Fear.

Favorite books or authors? No.

Any particular genre?
No, but usually nonfiction.

Can you describe your club in a few words?
A men’s book club.

Meeting locations? Members’ homes.

Meeting frequency? Monthly.

Structured or unstructured? Unstructured.

Ever use reading group guides or
other discussion aids?

No.

Are food or drinks important?
Any favorites?

Yes, wine and light fare.

Ever any arguments? No.

Has everyone always read the book? No.

How much time is devoted to the
book versus chatting?

90/10.

Do you want to elaborate on
any of these topics?

The brevity of the answers speaks to the nature of the group. It’s a men’s book club.

Three clubs’ beginnings
Nancy J. Parisi, a journalist and photographer, was inspired to start the Solid Gold Bookers—the name came from a club meeting that devolved into a dance party—at a gathering of friends, all youngish, professional, creative women, at the restaurant Brodo. A later member was added when, again at Brodo, Parisi approached a woman reading alone. Parisi notes, “She joined our club, I think a bit tentatively at first, but realized how wonderful we all are—and she is, too.” In addition to monthly book club meetings, these friends get together another two or three times most months for social events, including benefits for charitable organizations or just a glass of wine.

The Victorian Tea Book Club started as a New Year’s resolution. Robin Sutton, a professional legal secretary, says, “I wanted to start reading books with more substance, to spend more time with my girlfriends, to build in some quiet time, and to do something I had a passion for. From that, I organized our tea and book club.” After researching tea groups and book clubs, Sutton says, “I called seven of my girlfriends and explained what I was planning. I have to say they were somewhat skeptical, but today they absolutely love the group, and here we are eight years later.”

The League of Ordinary Gentlemen was founded by physician Kent Leiber, who brought together a group of male friends, then added new members, always striving to find guys with different points of view. The men are all accomplished professionals, including several doctors and engineers, and a wide range of ages. Leiber notes about the original group of friends, “Many of our wives were in clubs. Why should they have all the fun?” The group’s only rule: if you haven’t read the book, you’re not allowed to dominate the conversation.


Gender divide
Guys and gals don’t mix much when it comes to getting together to discuss books. The three groups profiled here are typical: book clubs tend to be all women (most often) or all men.

Michael C. Mahaney, executive director of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, suggested a possible explanation. “At many gatherings I’ve attended, men gravitate toward the family room for TV and football, while women prefer to converse in the dining room, living room, or kitchen. I believe some of this reflects how differently men and women communicate. Women tend to be more expressive and inquisitive; men more declarative. The tenor of book club discussions can reflect those differences and attract an audience that prefers one over the other.”

Laurie Dean Torrell and a friend recently formed an all-women book club, but for several years she was part of a successful Niagara Falls-based group made up of both women and men. Torrell notes, “A single gender might allow for easier conversation.”

When good groups go bad
Often formalizing a group of friends who occasionally discuss books into a more official book club works, but not always. This was the case with poet and professor David Landrey.

“Our group came undone when it became a ‘book club,’ which might be fine for many people, but it didn’t fit us. We began as a class at Buffalo State College, studying Heidegger’s Poetry, Language, Thought, and we enjoyed each other’s company enough to carry on for several years, adding folks along the way. During our last fine session we watched Magnolia together, stopping the tape to let the discussion take strange directions and then resuming until we finished it several hours later. It’s not that it wouldn’t be appropriate to have a book as an issue at any time, as long as it grew out of the ongoing conversation.”

In another case, a friend made the tough decision to drop out of her book club after several new members tried, mostly successfully, to add more structure to their meetings. She says, “I loved the flexibility it had when I first began going come early/come later, bring food/don’t bring food, read the book/don’t read the book.” The new members wanted major changes, exemplified by the by-laws they drafted. A few of the rules: “Prompt start time of 7 p.m., dinner at 8 p.m., followed by book discussion.” “Each member must attend at least seven meetings per year.” “Members will be voted into the group by a silent ballot majority.” And best of all: “The Christmas hostess is required to make the event very festive.” I’d walk, too.

Resources and getting started
Torrell notes, “What is the meaning of community if not creating spaces for meaningful conversations?” Asked about how to form a new group, she advises, “It can be neat to get together with someone else and brainstorm people to include, looking not at your closest friends but for people who are thoughtful and will bring different viewpoints to the table. And there are the basic questions to consider: how often and where to meet, what books to read.”

If you are interested in finding an existing club to join, start asking around—word of mouth may help you find the right group.

While book clubs are a great antidote for feeling like all your time is spent on-line, there are useful Web sites to check out. For on-line reading groups and generally helpful information, try www.book-clubs-resource.com. And if you’re in a group and haven’t read the book, there’s always www.cliffsnotes.com.

Lisa Kane is is an avid reader looking for a mixed-gender, non-by-lawed reading group that won’t mind when she doesn’t finish the book.


Book Club
L–R: Sharon Winegarden, Karen Glor, Cherry Searle, Holly Schloerb, Kathy Panasiewicz, Cynthia Bell, Robin Sutton,
and Sue Phillips
In Their Own Words:
THE VICTORIAN
TEA BOOK CLUB

Most recent book?
My Sister’s Keeper,
by Jodi Picoult.

Favorites?
Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees

Brief description of the group?
Cohesive personalities, quality women, diverse, friendships.

Structured or unstructured?
In order to keep from straying from the subject at hand, we are somewhat structured but still flexible.

Ever delve into a topic?
We try to have guests periodically, like a midwife when we read Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian, and a director of spiritual development when we read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to help sort out the religious aspects of the book.

Food and drinks?
Because we are also a tea club, food and drinks are a high priority with us.

Arguments?
No, none.

Chatting vs. discussing?
We chat before and during our tea, but generally not during the book discussion itself.

Book Club
In Their Own Words:
THE SOLID GOLD BOOKERS

Most recent book?
Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano.

Any particular genre?
We lean toward lost classics, but we try to read different types of things — everything from Ray Bradbury to Erica Jong.

Brief description of the group?
Infinite, happy, fun, loving, dynamic, democratic.

Structured or unstructured?
Decidedly “un,” although we’re all organized and professional with very organized, professional lives.

Use reading group guides or other discussion aids?
No. Siobhan brought notes once; we thought it was cute, and had more wine.

Food or drinks?
Yes! The beverages change based on the book—champagne for Great Gatsby and Fear of Flying, vodka tonics for Julie and Julia.

Arguments? Not a one.

Everyone read the book?
Everyone’s strongly encouraged to attend regardless of whether she’s finished the book.

Book discussion vs. chatting?
Chatting is life.We wouldn’t say we forget to talk about the book, but it is often only briefly touched upon.



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