Book clubs: Old fashioned social media


Reading is generally a solitary pursuit. However, through the formation of book clubs, a number of local bibliophiles have found a way to turn the pleasure of discovering a good book into a shared experience.

A couple of the local libraries, as well as bookseller Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven, host monthly book groups that are open to the public on a drop-in basis, while groups of friends all over the Island have formed regular book clubs that meet at member’s homes on a rotating basis.

The AKA Book Club, so named because all of the nine members have nicknames, has been meeting monthly for seven years. The members – all women who live up-Island – take turns choosing the book and hosting the get-togethers, which include dinner.

One of the advantages to a book club, according to Island book club member Daisy Kimberley, is that she is introduced to books she would never have chosen herself. “Many times I have thought, ‘Oh no’ when I found out what the book was going to be, but ended up thinking it was great. Every once in a while we get something that we all hate, but that’s good for discussion.”

Proving that it’s not just a women’s pursuit, about seven years ago a group of men, inspired by the involvement of their wives in local groups, formed their own book club.

“Paul Schneider and I started it thinking originally that we would read classics that we either wanted to re-read or skipped in college,” recalled Tony Omer of West Tisbury. “Since then we’ve branched out in a number of directions.” While they still throw in the occasional classic, the group mixes things up to include fiction and nonfiction in a variety of genres. “For the most part we’ve managed to stay away from the bestsellers,” says Mr. Omer.

“The majority of books lately have been by authors who have connections to the Vineyard,” he continued. Because of that, the club has been able to host a number of writers. The list of those who have been guests includes Perry Garfinkel, John Hough, Tony Horwitz, Alexandra Styron, and Rose Styron. Authors Ward Just and Stan Hart attended discussions, and both even joined the group briefly.

The men’s group operates as much as a social club as a reading and discussion group. The eight or so members have made off-Island trips together, attended movies, held joint meetings with other groups, read their own material aloud, and even helped edit a local writer’s book.

Travel is a big part of another book club, made up of 13 women from Edgartown. The group has been meeting monthly for 15 years, and they include at least one or two book related trips in their itinerary. The women made a trip to Newport last year after reading a book about that famed showplace of American wealth. A trip to New York City, including a visit to the Tenement Museum, followed the group’s reading of a book called “97 Orchard Street: Stories of Immigrant Life.”

“Carol Koser is our travel agent,” says member Marge Willoughby. “If we’re not reading a book that relates to a trip, she’ll find one.”

The group has also hosted visiting authors whose books they have read. Last year bestselling author Brunonia Barry paid a visit to the group after one of the members placed the winning bid on her at a celebrity auction. Scheduled for this year are visits from author and former journalist Ward Just and CNN anchor and novelist Kitty Pilgrim, both of whom are part-time Vineyard residents.

Perhaps the oldest and most organized group on the Island is one that was reestablished in 1983 after a brief hiatus. Ann Bassett, former events coordinator for the Bunch of Grapes, helped to relaunch the book club. The group of seven or eight women follows a syllabus and reads according to themes. One year they read work by Russian novelists. For another few months they read house-related books including “The House of The Seven Gables,” “The House of Mirth,” and “The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home.” The members also enjoyed a tour of a local home that has been in the same family for generations.

Author and editor Nina Schneider is a member. “She really led us and taught us in a way,” says Ms. Bassett. “I consider my reading group as a true education. I read a book differently when I know it will be discussed.” Ms. Bassett notes that the members take the reading and discussion very seriously. They generally don’t have a sit down dinner and always stay focused on the book. Ms. Bassett even takes notes.

The group encompasses many different people, including a lawyer, a journalist, and two english teachers. Pulitzer prize winner Geraldine Brooks — once a featured speaker — is now a member. “Everybody brings a different thing to the table,” says Ms. Bassett.

Two local libraries are currently hosting book clubs. The Oak Bluffs group is hosted by reference librarian Miki Wolf. She has a list of questions to prompt discussion if necessary and she will soon post these questions on a site called Good Reads in the hope that she can encourage an ongoing online discussion of the current and past selections.

Library assistant Jennifer Langhammer, who moderates a monthly meeting at the Vineyard Haven Library, tries to embrace the theme of the book at the gatherings with appropriate snacks and decorations.

“I have to take into account a number of factors for the selection,” Ms. Langhammer says. “I try to choose a popular book that’s at least a year old so that it’s available in regular print, large print, and audio book. I try to pick a book that’s well reviewed and well liked. I also try to choose a good book to discuss with some central issues or controversy.”

Karen Harris, who runs the monthly book club at the Bunch of Grapes, has the same criteria. “Picking a book for me isn’t just reading,” she says. “It’s got to be provocative, something that promotes discussion.” Ms. Harris selects books that have been in print for a while so that readers can purchase less expensive paperbacks and they will be readily available through libraries.

The Bunch of Grapes also offers a 10 percent discount to book clubs if they pre-order their selections.

Bunch of Grapes Book Club meets the first Wednesday of each month at the bookstore, on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Current selection is “The Whip” by Karen Kondazian. Call 508-693-2291 for more information.

Oak Bluffs Library Book Club meets the last Wednesday of every month from 10:30 am to 12 noon. This month’s selection is “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks. For more information, call 508-693-9433.

The Vineyard Haven Library Book Club meets the third Thursday of every month. February’s selection is “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed.

All are free and open to the public.