From Austen to Wharton

Delving into classic stories with a local book group.


There’s been only one good thing that’s come from the pandemic as far as I’m concerned — Dee Leopold’s fabulously engaging M.V. Library Association Classic Book Discussion Group. Yep, we’ve done all classics all the time since the very beginning. And it’s been a pure joy to come together every month for three or four weekly sessions to talk with others about books we had either read too long ago to remember well, or read for the first time.

The caliber of discussion is far superior to any groups I’ve tried over the years. Oh, we do laugh and make fun of the occasional character or plot twist, but the talk is lively and other’s thoughts are always well worth listening to.

I spoke with Leopold and we had a delightful discussion about the group’s origin and evolution. I discovered that she came upon the idea in a conversation at the West Tisbury library just before they closed, and the staff were thinking about things they could do to keep patrons engaged. Leopold says, “All my talented colleagues were coming up with ideas that seemed so cool. Like inventing crafts projects for kids and for adults, technical support, having a whole bank of links for people to look at. It started as a joke that I was in a sort of sparring discussion about ‘Pride and Prejudice’ that there is a character who is not terribly well-loved but is actually a wonderful truth teller. So, I said to myself, okay, I’m going to lead a book group on Jane Austen. It started with ‘Emma,’ and I knew it would be on Zoom for three weeks, and then bang, the pandemic would be over. Well, it turns out we are starting our 16th book.”

Leopold continues, “I was wrong on the timing, but we’ve got some traction. Every day I say thank you to Alexandra Pratt, the director of the West Tisbury library, who every time she could have said no, said yes. That was huge, that she thought this was of value.”

After “Emma,” Leopold decided we should continue on with Jane Austen: “My theory is that her characters are complicated, there’s a plot that thickens and twists and possibly, most important, nothing really bad happens. You can be reading Jane Austen at night and get a good night’s sleep. That seemed of primary value as we were in such unsettling times that we were all confronting.”

Leopold’s preparation and facilitation is impressive. In addition to reading and listening to each book twice, she sends out captivating articles and discussion questions beforehand, and the level of conversation is sophisticated and always lively. But there is never any pressure to chime in if you prefer to just listen. Leopold affirms, “We’re all good readers and careful readers and we want to do this, but I never want to call on anybody to speak, and there are a few people who seldom speak, but they are curious, active listeners. Zoom allows you to craft your own experience.”

Thinking back to the beginning, Leopold reflects, “When we first started doing Zoom, I had to shout, ‘unmute, unmute’ every few minutes. I didn’t know how many people I could handle originally.” Thinking she would start with six people per cohort, Leopold ran it three nights a week, hitting a high of forty-six people with “Middlemarch,” and we tackled that one over eight weeks. Leopold says, “What I liked to hear were people saying, you know what, I don’t know if I would have tackled ‘Middlemarch’ without a group. I could say that about myself. I don’t know if I could have said I would have gotten as much out of it without a group.”

Leopold adds, “We’re going to stay on Zoom because as we get better at this, it gives us the ability to not have to drive in our cars in any season, and we’re developing a camaraderie in this new technology. We’re all good at it now and it gives us the flexibility to not get dressed up. It’s one hour, nobody has to bring the wine and cheese, and we’re not talking about our grandchildren. We’re all ready to dig into the book and put everything else in our lives aside.”

We’ve read an impressive array of classics in addition to all of Austen’s novels: “Jane Eyre,” “Dr. Thorne,” “House of Mirth,” “Age of Innocence,” “Custom of the Country,” “Middlemarch,” “My Life in Middlemarch,” and “Howard’s End.” Right now, we are delving into “Passage to India.” And starting in late October, we will go for another eight-week run with “Anna Karenina.” Certainly not a “light” story, but one worth digging into as the days grow shorter and cooler. And as Leopold says, “I always like to say, if we’re not laughing, it’s not a good session. Sometimes I say something deliberately provocative so someone will push back on me and that’s going to be fun. It’s an hour that we wouldn’t have in any other way.”

For more information about the book group, contact Dee Leopold at