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Talk amongst yourselves: how book groups are brewing up community. (Cover Story).

Almost everyone knows someone who is in a book group. You can join one online, at your local bookstore, or on TV. Or you can open up magazines like Real Simple or Oprah's O to read your way through a book group experience. Even walmart.com has something to say about what makes good reading.

Some say that the proliferation of book groups is simply the result of a commercial enterprise, that it's just big business wanting consumers to do what they do best: buy--in this case, more books.

But the drive to discuss what's been read has as much to do with a yearning for community, self-improvement, and spiritual growth as it does with the books themselves. The reading community creates a safe--even sacred--space, encouraging participants to reflect on their own experience and allowing them to share it openly. Book group members come and go, but the same gatherings nonetheless stay together within the same communities for many years.

It's so magnetic that entire cities are forming their own versions of book groups: The first such citywide effort took place in Seattle four years ago. And this fall, Chicago's public library system is asking every adult and adolescent to read To Kill a Mockingbird. "This whole idea is spreading hugely," says Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian who conceived this idea. "It's based on the noble idea of community. My noble idea was that people would come together who would never come together any other way."

Patrick White, professor of English at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana, describes Americans' continued interest in and desire for communal selfimprovement and shared delight in the arts as an extension of the lyceums, or lectures on science, religion, and a variety of cultural topics for working-class men and women in the early 19th century. The Chautauqua movement later that century took a traveling tent show throughout the country, creating literary and art societies. The earlier English Bluestockings were subversive groups of women who met to share and discuss novels, the arts, and social action.

These movements were servants of their time period and culture, but early in the 20th century the Book of the Month Club and book sections of local newspapers appeared. "What we see happening with Oprah is right out of that tradition," White says. "She has created a public legitimization of reading in groups, with her TV program, recommended books, and by saying that it's not only important to read but to be in situations where you talk about what you're reading."

At the heart of this magnetism to community is a spiritual path. "You can't get people together to talk about literature in a serious way over time without touching on spiritual matters," White says, "even if it's not somehow obvious in the book, even if you hated the book.

"Let's face it," he adds, "no one is going to say to each other, `Hey, let's get together for the next 10 years and promise that we'll grow together as spiritual beings.' It's too terrifying. So we say, `Do you want to get together and read some books? Oh yeah, we'll read some books and it will be fun and interesting.'"

White and his wife have been members of a book group for 10 years, and his career has focused on the intellectual, social, and spiritual growth to be had from reading and group discussion. He considers the personal element that tends to surface in book group conversation to be one of the main attractions. "It's as though the book is the holy object, and we all come together around the book, but the book ceases at times to be the focus--and you have a real joining of human hearts."

Book group members may notice how quickly they "get off track" and start talking about their lives, but White says, "I don't think that's off track at all. It's the literature asking us to look imaginatively at these characters, and then we look at our own lives imaginatively too--reading literature teaches us how to read our own lives, so it's a natural move to the personal."

Good reads for the soul

People may consciously turn to reading, and discussing with friends, for entertainment value and intellectual stimulation. But on another level, engaging the characters, events, and themes in literature, as well as engaging the viewpoints and experiences of friends through that literature, naturally encourages readers to engage their own lives from new perspectives--which over time promotes spiritual growth.

One book group in Chicago has an overt spiritual agenda. Karen Williams, 38, who founded the group seven years ago, says, "We consider it more than a book group. It's very much part of members' spiritual paths." Williams started the group because she felt she wasn't getting enough from going to her Catholic church once a week. "We wanted an intimate community that could support us in growing. A lot of us were already avid readers, and we thought that would be a good point to start from."

The twice-monthly meeting starts with a prayer, reflection, or song, with all of the members, who are women, sitting in a circle. They have a brief "check-in" to see what's happening in everyone's lives before getting to the book discussion. All of the books, both fiction and nonfiction, have a spiritual dimension from a variety of faith traditions. One recent selection was Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, which inspired the group to practice a silent yoga meditation.

When one member of the group was expecting her first child, her fellow members made her a T-shirt with their hand prints over the belly; it was their way of offering blessings to the baby. When the baby was born, the group held their meeting at the hospital and focused their discussion and prayer on the newborn and mother.

"The group has a lot to do with rituals that commemorate, celebrate, and give support for all of life's major and small moments," says Williams. "We use the books to help guide us and give us ideas, and we build up a structure around that. The readings we do come alive more for me because we talk about them and see how they fit into our life experience."

People often ask Williams about the group, how it got started, and how it might be replicated. "People are just longing for a sense of being known, to be part of a community, and to become more deeply grounded and rooted in their spirituality," she says. The group is one of the most important commitments in Williams' life. "It's such a powerful experience for me, I can't imagine not having something like this in my life. I travel a lot for my job, and I do everything I can to manipulate my schedule so I can be there," she says.

Peggy Jackson's book group in Berkeley, California also has a spirituality-centered reading list. Her group has been active for 30 years and was started through the Catholic Newman Center at the university. They call themselves "Tuesday Afternoon Theology" and read only nonfiction with a faith element. While the books stimulate vigorous intellectual discussion, Jackson says, "We meet for just an hour and sometimes don't get to talking about the book until the last 15 minutes because the first 45 minutes somebody has a problem in their life or something has happened in the news and we get to talking about those things. Sometimes we have to remind each other that we better get down to the books!" Jackson can find this frustrating at times because she'd like to spend as much time as possible discussing the book but nonetheless recognizes the value of the group beyond the reading.

She belongs to the group to help keep herself closer to her faith, she says, which was deepened when she spent a year at Berkeley's School of Applied Theology 20 years ago, at age 60. It was a challenging time in Jackson's life, when she was "fighting" with the church and had just discovered she had a gay son.

"As a result of that year, I felt much more Catholic, much closer to the church after many battles I'd had against it. Since then, I wanted to keep that feeling alive, so I joined this book group," she says. "I take something away every week that helps me. I've had a rather difficult time in my life, and I find that when I go there, either someone else has gone through something similar or someone says something that helps me to think along a different line. The level of trust is extremely high."

The group plays an important role in the lives of its other members as well: One participant is disabled, in a wheelchair, and does not speak audibly. "But he comes anyway," Jackson says, "and he listens to us talk and does all the reading. His wife brings him and picks him up each week."

When she was first raising her children 30 years ago in Memphis, Janie McCrary, like many mothers at home, felt a need for more conversation with other adults and a need to share her thoughts and experiences with others.

There were plenty of others in her neighborhood with the same need, and before long a group of more than 25 women found themselves meeting regularly. The women came together to read books for intellectual stimulation, but, McCrary says, "we have been through babies, marriages, divorces, the whole span of our lives. The book group has been much about deepening and enriching our relationships. Mostly, I've learned an awful lot about myself."

Today McCrary belongs to three book groups--the neighborhood group, which meets monthly, a Friday morning "intellectual" group, and a couples group with her husband. She considers the investment of time to be highlights of her life. Her Friday morning group selects single topics to read for an entire year. They tend to select a place and read a variety of fiction and nonfiction from that region, such as Japan, Africa, or China.

One of her groups spent some time reading Southern writers as well as books about the female experience, which was of particular interest because all members were women from the South. "That was an experience that helped me sort out who I am," McCrary says. She remembers reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, which she calls her "all-time favorite book" because, while she had read a lot about slavery and the Southern experience, it wasn't until she read Beloved that she really felt something particularly intimate about what it was to have been a slave. "I was a different person when I put that book down from the person that I was when I opened it. I think that's what great literature aims to do for people."

The couples' group does not have some of the more personal elements that her other women's groups do, which McCrary says may be because of the mixed presence of men and women. "I think women tend to take things more personally than men do," she says.

A chick thing?

Two men in a book group in Grand Rapids, Michigan would on first blush seem to agree with McCrary. Doug Dowling works in marketing and has been in the fiction book club at Westminster Presbyterian Church for six years. The group meets once a month at the church.

Dowling says he joined for the opportunity to read books he might not normally get to and to broaden his viewpoint on literature and the world. The group is primarily made up of women, whom he considers to be more focused on feelings and who often enjoy different kinds of books than he generally enjoys. At the same time, Dowling admits that when the conversation flows between the book's plot or characters or theme and personal experience, "it's one of the benefits of being in the book group, sharing the experiences that we've had that bring us to our point of view," he says. "You can't get that from just reading a novel by yourself and not discussing it."

Dowling sees the popularity of book groups filling a gaping hole in American social life. "There used to be a place where people would go--the barber shop, a park bench down by the courthouse--where they would have a leisurely time sitting around and arguing about what was going on locally, in politics, in community, in culture," he explains. "Today we don't have any of that--we have [Internet] chat rooms, which are very cold since they're not face to face--and people continue to want to share and learn from one another. They want to be heard, and there aren't a lot of places, like book groups, where they get to do it."

William Cayce, another member of the Westminster book group, expresses similar hesitations about getting "too personal" in their discussions. On the other hand, he admits he was searching for community when he joined six years ago at age 78. "I was alone and felt like I just needed to be with people. My wife was quite ill, and it was a very difficult time," he says. His experiences with his wife's Alzheimer's disease affected his experiences with the books and in the group. "I carried my personal life into the books, so it was good for me to be with other people. Their viewpoint helped me quite a bit," Cayce adds.

That help--the reading and discussion--has spiritual underpinnings. Cayce says that while the group doesn't set out to talk about sin per se, they do talk about characters and people who aren't whole or complete. "Most of us are striving for a state of wholeness of mind, body, and spirit. That means experiencing a sense of accomplishment, of fulfillment, of being able to meet stress and handle it with optimism and with hope for the hereafter."

Like Janie McCrary, Cayce's group read Beloved, a book that he considers to have "redeeming social value"--something he doesn't say about many of the other books his group reads. Those he dislikes leave him feeling "glutted."

"It bothers me when I read about people hurting each other, because I saw so much of that in my medical practice," he explains. "I would like to read more biography and classics. The language is much better, and I'd just rather not spend my time with people that are in the gutter, so to speak."

Creating connections

Critically acclaimed author and poet Naomi Shihab Nye (Words Under the Words, Never in a Hurry, Red Suitcase) has visited countless book groups in her hometown of San Antonio. Often the groups have older members who, like Cayce, are looking for a community. "Some of the older readers may feel somewhat cut off from community in an intellectual way," she says, "and so the group helps fill that gap. It becomes very, very important to the people who participate."

Recently, after Nye visited with a local group, a woman, age 94, came up to her afterwards to thank her for listening to their responses. "She said to me, 'When you get old, you often feel that no one wants to listen to you anymore. That's why I love this group so much, because we all listen to one another and to the books we read," Nye recalls. "They appreciated the chance to ask me questions about what I'd written and to share with me their reactions. But they also were expressing that they were still interested in intelligent apprehension of books, and to be a part of the group gives them the sense of being quite alive."

As a writer, Nye finds the experience of interacting with people who've read her books to be deeply gratifying. "I always feel so grateful that they've taken the time to care, to read and re-read. Often they come with questions written on backs of envelopes or on their bookmarks where they have things occur to them as they're reading," she says. "There's a feeling of deep intimacy when I've met with a group--they invite me to add another dimension to their experience. Sometimes I leave feeling like I've just made my new best friends, and if I collapse in the street, may it be one of them that finds me!"

Like the book group members, Nye finds that community connection visiting groups as a writer. "It amazes me to think of how many groups there are in this one city of San Antonio," she says. "We become almost like this big extended family experience, where the books the groups read together are the centerpiece but everyone is connected to each other's lives in a larger way.

"When you are all gathered together around a book, whatever it is, you have a feeling of common ground. What I hope for most for my readers is that they find in my work that invitation to participate."

RELATED ARTICLE: A Book Group Epiphany.

One of poet Naomi Shihab Nye's more profound experineces with a book group was with a group of 12-year-old junior high girls who had read Habibi, her autobiographical novel for teens about a Palestinian American girl and a Jewish boy in the West Bank. What Nye didn't know before attending the group was that all of the members were Jewish. They had been meeting since fifth grade. One of the girls selected Habibi, and on the day of the discussion several of the moms decided to stay and participate--which made Nye wonder if they were concerned about the book's topic.

The event couldn't have gone better had it been orchestrated by Nye herself. "This is the group of readers I would most like to reach, these exact girls. And here they found the book on their own and responded in the most incredible way," Nye says. The girls said that the book opened their eyes to stereotypes, telling her things like, "I always knew there was more to the story than was presented to us, but I could never connect with it until I found this character in the story."

One girl said she felt ashamed of the things she had heard said about Arabs in her own household and among other girls she knew. Another said she wanted to become a lawyer working for civil rights for the oppressed, and that the book had confirmed that desire.

"They had a lot of excellent literary questions about the book and the way it was written," Nye says. "Reading books together had given a sense of empowerment to these girls." The young group got started because they felt there were so many wonderful books they wanted to read and they'd seen their parents in book groups, so they got their own group going. "I haven't known many self-run reading groups by younger kids," Nye adds. "I left there with the greatest respect for them, and for the fact that they'd invited me to have this challenging discussion."

RELATED ARTICLE: Excerpt from Naomi Shihab Nye's novel Habibi:

Later everyone washed their hands and sat on floor cushions in the big family circle as platters of steaming food traveled around. They scooped mounds of rice and cauliflower onto plates, and Omer asked questions through Poppy. He wanted to know people's jobs, how they were connected. Poppy said, "Don't get started! They're oil connected!"

Liyana whispered to Poppy, "Who do they think he is?"

Poppy whispered back, "Who knows? Maybe they think he's our next-door neighbor from St. Louis, since he's only speaking English. I just said he was our friend."

Omer, Khaled, and Nadine ate so much that everyone was complimented. The aunts always teased Liyana's family about living on "crumbs of bread and mint leaves." No one seemed suspicious of Omer, as Poppy had said they might. In fact, they seemed flattered that any mystery person would want to spend time with them. When you sat around with people, regular people with teacups and nutcrackers, they just wanted to get to know you.

Sitti threw her head back to gulp a soda straight from the bottle. A scraggly cat leapt through the doorway onto the ledge above Sitti's bed. She waved it away, muttering and mumbling.

"What's she saying?"

"I won't even begin to tell you." Poppy sighed.

Khaled said, "She told him he is not invited and he can go cook his own dinner with the other cats on the roof."

They ate and ate and ate. The whole day tasted wonderful. Afterward, when matches were struck for the awful afterdinner cigarettes and steam rose in small clouds from coffee cups, Omer said something directly to Sitti in slow, broken Arabic, which made the whole room go quiet. Now they knew he wasn't from St. Louis. A little hush rolled around the room.

Sitti replied in a voice more booming and animated than usual. It made Poppy sit straight up. Liyana tugged at him. "What is she saying?"

Everyone pinned their eyes to her face. Except for Abu Daoud, who stormed from the room looking angry, after blurting something sharp to Omer. "What happened?" Liyana pulled Poppy's sleeve.

Poppy spoke haltingly. He didn't like translating if the person who had spoken could understand him. But sometimes he had to. Omer had said how much it meant to him to be with them. He thanked them for their welcome and said they felt like family to him. He wished they didn't have all these troubles in their shared country. Sitti said, "We have been waiting for you a very long time." But Abu Daoud, who now realized Omer's identity, hissed, "Remember us when you join your army."

From Habibi, by Naomi Shihab Nye. Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. c1997 Naomi Shihab Nye.

RELATED ARTICLE: BOOK GROUP FAVORITES.

Here are some of the books that the groups mentioned in this article especially enjoyed discussing:

* Beloved, by Toni Morrisson (Knopf)

* The Art of Happiness, by the Dalai Lama (Riverhead)

* A Lesson Before Dying, by Earnest Gaines (Knopf)

* The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant (St Martins)

* Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier (EP Dutton)

* The Bonesetter's Daughter, by Amy Tan (Putnam)

* The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas (Modern Library)

* The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (HarperFlamingo)

* A Brief History of Everything, by Ken Wilber (Shambhala)

* House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III (Norton)

* Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt (Scribner)

* God Is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism, by David Cooper (Penguin USA)

* Dakota, by Kathleen Norris (Mariner)

* When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner (Schocken)

* Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi (Simon & Schuster)

MAUREEN ABOOD is the literary editor of U.S. CATHOLIC and communications manager of the Claretian Missionaries in Chicago.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Abood, Maureen
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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