The appeal of book clubs on Martha’s Vineyard

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Book club selections can be found at Island libraries, or through local booksellers such as Bunch of Grapes. —Photo by Ralph Stewart

Just as culture mavens predicted the death of big-screen movies when little-screen televisions rolled into every home in America, techies assumed that the advent of e-books would spell the end of what diehard readers can’t help thinking of as “real books.”

That dire prediction has not come to pass. Sure, even the diehards might own a Kindle for those times when it’s handier than propping up a 10-pound book like Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” but no one will ever be able to pry real books out of our cold dead hands. For several years now, e-book sales have been holding steady, but rising no higher than 30 percent of the publishing market. We can all do the math: That means 70 percent of books being purchased are, well, books.

Here’s another welcome statistic: There are more bookstores today than in the 1920s, when the only other entertainment draws were silent movies and radio sets the size of refrigerators.

So we love to read, and my own hunch, based on the fact that our little Island runs six year-round libraries, is that we Vineyarders are major consumers of books. And what do major consumers do? They form book clubs. More than 5 million adults in this country are affiliated with reading clubs. If you’re reading these words right now, you’re probably in one, or have been in one and you miss it, or you’re thinking of forming a new one of your very own.

Betty Burton, already buried in books in her job as program director at the Vineyard Haven library, belongs to two books groups. Why two? “I love to talk to people about books!” she said. She joined the first group six years ago. The members are all working ladies, so they meet in the evening. They’re principally interested in books on the New York Times bestseller lists. “It’s a good way for them to keep up with current trends,” Ms. Burton said.

Her second book club, which she joined a couple of years ago, is composed of sophisticated retired ladies who meet during the day. “I’m the baby of the group!” she said with a laugh. Bestseller titles are of lesser interest to them; they bring lists of books they’ve enjoyed in the past. After they discuss the current month’s read, they pitch one or two of their own personal favorites until a consensus is reached on the next month’s title.

Recently, both groups have interfaced with the novel “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, about a French town on the coast, a blind girl, a young boy, and the last days of the Nazi occupation. It’s pretty plain whom we root for. The other novel that landed in both of Ms. Burton’s groups is Anita Diamond’s “The Boston Girl,” about a female Jewish immigrant trying to make her way in the tenements of Boston in the early part of the last century.

Oak Bluffs resident Gretchen Tucker Underwood belonged to two book clubs when she lived in Wellesley and served as dean of students at Brookline High School. When she moved to the Island in 2007, she joined a club that now serves 13 members, and they’re holding firm at that number: “We don’t meet in July or August, and since we rotate houses, no one is required to host more than once a year,” she said in a recent phone call.

The recent club date took place in Ms. Underwood’s house. The hostess serves dinner and also enjoys the privilege of selecting the book (following a discussion of choices from the meeting before). Ms. Underwood said, “I read so much, it’s hard to choose, but this time I made it easy: It was “The Keeper of Lost Causes” [by Jussi Adler-Olson and Lisa Hartford, a thriller in the Stieg Larsson vein], because I read that Michelle Obama was loving it!”

A common criticism of book clubs is that often a five-minute survey of the month’s choice dissolves into gossip and talk about vacations. It’s hard to imagine that happening under the watchful eye of Ms. Underwood, dean of students and daughter of a judge. Ms. Burton has a less imposing demeanor, but she says when topics stray, there is always someone to shepherd the members back to the book.

A book club is an ideal way to meet interesting new friends. When I first spent serious time on the Island in the early ’80s, I was invited to join a crew that included Ann Nelson, original owner of the Bunch of Grapes, and novelist Marianne Wiggins, who later moved to London, met and married Salman Rushdie, and had the thrill of a lifetime of going into hiding with him over the Ayatollah’s fatwah.

Attorney Jane Kaplan was also in the group. One day I placed a desperate call to her from a phone booth in Boston after taking the Massachusetts real estate exam. I learned I’d passed, but next they’d be checking for a criminal record. I asked Jane if I’d be held accountable for a few teenage indiscretions. She said not to worry, and to head into the nearby hotel, the Park Plaza, and order a stiff drink from the bar.

You see how handy book clubs can be?

There are men’s clubs: MV Times contributor Tony Omer happily belongs to a longstanding all-guys group, and there are couples’ clubs: Celeste and Norman Stinkney are ensconced in one through the Unitarian Universalist Church. Look around. Find a group or start a new one. We read here. A lot. The Island is one big Bloomsbury Circle.