2014-02-07 / Around Town

Book Clubs Cultivate Insight and Friendship

By Pat Blakeley

The Newport Art Museum’s Read/Eat/Chat gathering draws art and book enthusiasts. (Photo courtesy of Newport Art Museum) The Newport Art Museum’s Read/Eat/Chat gathering draws art and book enthusiasts. (Photo courtesy of Newport Art Museum) Many people think of summer as the time for leisure reading, with images of vacationing folks relaxing beachside with a book, but most serious readers know that the prime time for their favorite activity lies outside the dog days of summer – and that opportunities abound for connecting with the likeminded when temperatures plummet.

There are books clubs all over the island – library groups, private social groups, church groups, store and special interest groups, those welcoming drop-ins and those with long waiting lists – and everything in between.

Some are made up of friends, others of those who share certain interests, and still others have few similarities except for their love of books, but they all have one thing in common: they are full of people who are interested – interested in learning, in reaching outside their comfort zones, and in hearing what others have to say.

An enthusiastic Island Book group discusses “Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore” at a recent meeting. (Photo by Pat Blakeley) An enthusiastic Island Book group discusses “Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore” at a recent meeting. (Photo by Pat Blakeley) Island Books has been hosting a monthly book meeting for over 10 years. Facilitator Pat Coussa says that they typically have 10-12 people but that the drop-in group is open to all. She notes that their gathering is different from many in that most of the participants only know each other through the group, and discussions rarely deviate from the book. With a circle of long-term friends, that is not always the case.

The Newport Public Library groups meet during the day and evening, with each focusing on slightly different material. The Thursday evening gathering has a core cadre of about 14, but the number varies each month depending on the interest in the book. Pat LaRose, who leads the Thursday meeting, says they read popular fiction, but that the Tuesday afternoon group typically tackles more challenging pieces.

People often belong to more than just one group – or at least attend multiple meetings if they are interested in the subject or a particular book.

“I discussed this book last year at the Channing Church group, and I reread it for this one,” noted Barbara Richter at Newport Library’s recent meeting on Julian Barnes’ “Sense of an Ending.” Such enthusiasm and interest in literature is common among readers.

Several places offer specialized book groups. The Jamestown Philomenian Library offers Monday Night Mysteries for whodunit aficionados, tackling both classics and recent releases. Portsmouth Free Public Library has a group for adults who enjoy teen fiction. “Think ‘Harry Potter,’ and ‘Twilight,’” says director Carolyn Magnus, adding that some attend because they enjoy the genre, others because they want to be better able to connect with their own teen readers.

The Newport Art Museum hosts a Read/Eat/Chat gathering each month focusing on art-themed books. Attendees bring brown bag lunches and discuss the material; it is not necessary to be an artist or art lover to participate, although most are art enthusiasts. The Book Group for Knitters at Newport Public Library invites readers to bring knitting, crocheting or any type of fiber craft to work while they discuss their favorites.

Many houses of worship offer book groups: Temple Shalom’s meets at Empire Tea & Coffee and the United Congregational Church’s Happy Bookers gather at the church. Occasionally, the works discussed have religious themes, but most do not.

Small private or social book groups abound, made up of friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Some have been getting together for decades, with others emerging as people look for ways to connect in person.

All agree that the best aspect of private book gatherings is the social interaction, the worst is staying on topic.

Mary Beth Smith founded what is arguably the oldest social book club on Aquidneck over 35 years ago. She and Jan Arendt began the circle for wives of officers assigned to the wardroom of USS Damato. Though the group has changed many times through the decades – Smith and Arendt are the only charter members left – Smith observes that the club is about more than friendships; it is a sisterhood that revolves around their love of books. “One time a member's mother was visiting and came to a meeting,” she chuckles. “After about an hour and a half, she asked when we were going to talk about the book.” Smith says her gang made a conscious decision not to serve wine. “We knew if we served wine, we’d never get around to discussing the book.”

When Geri Zilian moved to the island in 1991 following an assignment in Germany, she was thrilled to be back, but found she pined for her embassy book buddies. She started a club with seven friends and neighbors and, while members have moved or passed away, many of the core group remain. Zilian said that she likes to have 10-12 members, more than most, so they always have enough for a vigorous discussion even in months when many people are away.

These sodalities meet at each other’s homes, rotating host and facilitator duties, and are usually limited to 8-10 members. They are, by and large, diehard groups and openings are rare. One woman described how she mentioned to her group that she was out straight and might need to drop out due to other commitments. Shortly thereafter, she indicated that she would be able to continue after all. “My friend told me they had already filled my spot!” she says laughing, apparently they had quite a waiting list.

While it might be nice to be on the “same page” about a monthly selection, the leaders concur that disagreements about the books and characters often spark the liveliest discussions. Members are often stunned by others’ perceptions and walk away with much more insight than they brought to the meeting. “I love to hear people saying, ‘I never would have read it, but I am glad I did,’” LaRose observed, a sentiment echoed by all of the facilitators interviewed.

For more information on island book groups, check Newport This Week, local library listings, houses of worship, or ask your co-workers and friends.

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