The pandemic changed my life, and I loathed most of the forced changes with a passion. Ironically, two that linger have been instrumental in increasing my well-being: Zoom and Dee Leopold’s Martha’s Vineyard Library Association Classics Book Group have been gloriously combined ever since our very first meeting three years ago on March 25, 2020. Leopold is a superb facilitator — smart, funny, appropriately provocative, and gets a lively discussion going while keeping it safe and supportive.
Why does this group, hosted by the West Tisbury library, only cover the classics? Leopold says, “I would like to stay in the 19th century, picking books where people could say, Yes, that’s worth my time and energy and mental space. Many of them are new to me. I had never read Trollope, for instance. And now, he’s my guy.”
It’s marvelous to focus on the classics, because it gives me the chance to revisit particular books that I read in my youth, like all the Jane Austens, Whartons, Jameses, and Foresters we have done — giving me a new perspective from this point in time, and leaving me wondering what my younger self was thinking. But we also delve into books, like Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” and Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” that I would never get as much from if it weren’t for doing it in a group. We’re about to jump into Anton Chekhov’s short stories, which I would never have thought to tackle on my own, and hadn’t even known he had written, thinking of him only as a playwright.
Leopold expertly cultivates lively but always respectful discussions, and it’s been wonderful getting to know fellow readers’ different preferences, perspectives, and personalities.“It’s always surprising when people have a strong emotional reaction to something in one of these novels,” Leopold says. “I try to draw that out, to be able to have a trusting environment where we can explore our reactions. I like when we can talk to each other and learn to listen.”
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the regular participants, although there are always a few new people in every round, as you can come and go à la carte, joining for a particular novel and opting out of others. Cumulatively, 120 people have participated over the years. Leopold runs three to four groups a week, depending on the demand for the book, so your night of about 14 or so people always feels intimate. The largest number are year-rounders, followed by seasonal people, and then others from farther afield, like my friend who has never been to the Vineyard, and splits her time between Colorado and New York.
Every month we delve into the plots, themes, characters, and settings of a different book, reading and discussing about 100 pages at a time, so how many weeks we meet depends on the length of the novel. E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” and Ivan Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons,” for instance, ran for three weeks, while the likes of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” were a luxurious eight weeks each. I love these deep dives into the stories, taking them a chunk at a time. And although some of us, including me, get carried away and read ahead of that week’s allotment, Leopold is very strict about spoilers. She can’t fathom the idea of coming together only once after reading a book in its entirety. “It would be like climbing Mount Everest and coming back and telling us how it was, versus we’re going to go up Everest together, a little bit at a time. And there’s a stickiness to meeting every week, that we can count on it. Also, it’s one hour. I like the fact that often we were wishing we had more time, versus trying to vamp until the second hour is up,” she says.
Leopold is thorough in her preparation, which, she says, “I like to do because it makes me feel like I have standards to live up to. I want to bring my very best self to each group every time.” Like Dee, I enjoy listening to the audio version first. “I’m always listening in my house, in my car. Then I read so I make sure I’ve seen the printed word, and can make notes,”she says. Leopold then continuously repeats the process, and comes up with a game plan for the hour. Surprisingly, Leopold has never been in a book club herself. But she says, “Since doing this, I have joined online courses and groups. It’s been a catalyst for me to learn how virtual learning is most effective.”
Asked why she keeps it online even though we could meet in person, Leopold says, “I believe there’s value to it. I think Zoom is magical. I’m sorry we had to have a pandemic to discover it, but it plays to our convenience and geographical reach. I think Zoom gives the leader, oddly, more control. I can have my book in front of me and check the time in a way that feels comfortable. And it’s more accommodating to silence. There are people who rarely choose to speak, but I think the hour is engaging for them too. I don’t know if they would drive somewhere to sit and be silent.
“Ultimately, I hope that at the end of every hour, people say, ‘That felt good.’ That it was almost like a Goldilocks feeling — it wasn’t too heavy or too light. It was an enjoyable hour that felt safe and challenging at the same time.”
For more information or to join, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. For FAQs, go to westtisburylibrary.org/publiclibrary/mvla-classics-book-group.
I second everything that Abby says about the West Tisbury/Dee Leopold book group. I was among the first participants and brought along some friends– by now, Thursday at 5 feesl like a good ritual and I hold the time– no interruptions, rarely absent. I love the laughter as much as the puzzles about each book. And like Abby, I’ve become a Trollope fan–.
I’ve always believed that reading is a social activity and that meaning is constructed best in a group– this isn’t because that’s also a theory among lit profs, but because the readers become part of the story. Even with books I haven’t read well or don’t much like, I come away every time with a new interest and way of reading– bravo to Dee and to my (mostly) sister readers and thank you to West Tisbury Library.
I too would like to second everything that’s been said. I didn’t discover the group until the second year, but I’m so glad that I did. I almost gave up right away when I joined just in time to start off with “War and Peace” but Dee helped me out and I ended up loving it! The book and the group. I’m usually a Tuesday person but occasionally I’m there other times to meet other people. We have someone from Ireland on Tuesdays, and there are also a few from Italy, so it’s an international group! Thank you Dee.
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