Cover Stories

Club Paradise

GT1510coverwebHow Santa Cruz is celebrating the ‘year of books’

Mark Zuckerberg made one public New Year’s resolution for 2015: Start a book club. In fact, he declared 2015 “a year of books”—and, ever the over-achiever, promised to read one every two weeks, inviting readers around the world to join him. We’ll ignore the irony of the CEO and founder of Facebook celebrating the glorious, dusty dinosaurs that populate our bookshelves, devoid of data-mining capacity, and instead applaud the call to action. He launched a Facebook page in January to serve as a hub for readers, but there’s a far more time-tested social medium the rest of us readers have been using for years: the book club.

It’s been estimated that there are currently over 500,000 book clubs in the United States alone—and that’s not even counting online book clubs. Do the math; with 10 people on average per club, that’s five million people getting together every few weeks in various living rooms, coffee shops and libraries to eat trays of good cheese and bad crackers (or vice versa), banana nut bread and chocolate chip cookies, while drinking bottomless cups of coffee or tea and a staggering amount of Chardonnay.

These clubs read and discuss 60 million books annually, far from chump change for booksellers everywhere. And their opinions matter. Books like The Kite Runner, Water for Elephants, and The Boys in the Boat became bestsellers because word-of-mouth propelled them from hand to hand. As doomsday tales of a dying book industry continue to circulate—books, bookstores, print in general, and attention spans are all supposedly dying, we’re constantly told—readers are busy going about the business of reading and sharing, in droves.

Here in Santa Cruz, there are book clubs to fit every persuasion. From the Scandinavian Book Club to the Homeschooler’s Book Club, the Santa Cruz Lesbian and Gay Book Club (or if you want to get really specific and travel over the hill, the Collectors of Vintage Lesbian/Gay Paperbacks and Pulps Book Club), to Christian Books and Beer and the Santa Cruz Teen Book Crew, the list is long.

Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, says she values the book club experience not just as a professional in the industry, but also as a reader.

“You’d think I wouldn’t really need a book group when I am surrounded by books and people who discuss books all day long,” says Protti. “But there is something different when you get a length of time to discuss a single book, especially amongst friends. You see it in a different light. You share in an intellectual experience that grows from month to month.”

Protti’s book group is made up of professional women with young children.

“We read our books by the light of the nightlight in some cases,” she says. “But it is time just for us—to remember what it is like to be an adult, to remember what it is like to slow down our fast-paced lives to spend some real time thinking without distractions. Not to mention that we also have some really great laughs, and enjoy a great meal. When you bring 10 people’s interests to the table, your reading really expands.”

Turning Pages, Taking Names

The beginning of book clubs as domestic gathering places was directly tied to the intellectual aspirations of women. “Literary societies” in the 18th and 19th centuries were the precursor to modern book clubs, created by women seeking self-empowerment and alternatives to the formal educational systems to which they had little or no formal access. These casual meetings quietly gained traction in the larger culture, and ultimately played a role in advancing social issues like women’s suffrage.

Book club membership broadened to include men and the middle class through early mail-order clubs like the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild, both founded in the 1920s, and the Great Books Foundation in the 1940s. These gatekeepers, along with emerging magazines like The New Yorker, set about cultivating literary and cultural taste in the masses, often emphasizing the western canon as a means to class distinction and public discourse.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that book clubs re-emerged as consciousness-raising opportunities, reflecting the storm of social and feminist issues that were emerging at the time. This shift brought book clubs full circle, setting the stage for their highest-profile champion ever to rise above the airwaves like a latter-day literary goddess, planting the seeds of relatable reading in ground made fertile by the widespread desire among women for connection and role models.

CoverOprahBook cov1That was, of course, Oprah Winfrey, whose first book club began in 1996. Over the following years, as she gently nudged her viewing audience back to the bookstore—and in the process talked the skittish book business down from the ledge—her 70 book picks sold over 55 million copies. When she selected Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for her classics book club, it doubled the book’s total U.S. sales since 1886 in one week. Even today, long after the end of her famed television show, her book club 2.0 picks still earn a substantial sales bump, handsomely rewarding any author lucky enough to bask in the glow of the “Oprah effect.”

There have been authors who weren’t so grateful, however. OK, one: Jonathan Franzen found himself in the crosshairs after sharing his mixed feelings when Oprah picked his book The Corrections for her book club. He told a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer that he thought his novel “is a hard book for that audience,” and in another interview worried about losing male readership, saying that Winfrey had “picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself.” In fairness, he also said, “I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight,” and went on to heal the rift between them when she picked his next book, Freedom, as well. But his earlier comments served to highlight gender and class bias against book clubs that brought angry rebukes. It’s easy to picture our Victorian great-grandmothers sighing deeply, with flourish, as if to say, “Really? Still?”

However much certain “high art” writers may look down scornfully at book clubs, the bottom line is clear: women purchase the majority of books in the U.S. by a margin of almost 60 percent, and some in the book industry say they drive fiction sales by as much as 80 percent. Author Ian McEwan put his own spin on the subject: “Reading groups, readings, breakdowns of book sales all tell the same story: when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

In Franzen’s case, revealing his ambivalence made for an awkward discussion, but an important one. It might have even highlighted one of the great gifts that book clubs have to offer: a reading democracy.

The Politics of Clubbing

Members of book clubs in Santa Cruz seem to take a particular pride in the democratic nature of such groups. Felton book club leader Eunice LeMay—who has had to assure several would-be members of her group, Reading in the Redwoods, that it meets in the Felton Library, not a forest grove—echoes Casey Coonerty Protti’s sentiment about the importance of a range of voices in any book club.

“What I value is that members offer opinions and perspectives I haven’t thought of,” says LeMay. “Because of them I read things I wouldn’t normally read, and it makes me rethink my assumptions.”

Elisabeth Bertrand Russell of Ravenous Readers (currently reading Russka, by Edward Rutherfurd, which was probably recommended by the group’s passionate historian, Lou Chiaramonte, Jr.) likes how her community of readers transforms and enhances the experience.

“Reading books is a solitary endeavor,” she says. “It’s a delight to be able to come together, from this solitary place, to share books with other people who love books.”

Duane Adams of the Scandinavian Book Club (currently racing through The Keeper of Lost Causes, by Jussi Adler-Olsen) values the group’s ability to stretch beyond their immediate experience into the “day-to-day life and dirty laundry” of Scandinavian culture (there go my assumptions about crisp white linens and Maypoles) through historical fiction and crime novels.

If the uninitiated believe book clubs to be some kind of exercise in groupthink, think again. Things can get downright testy.

cov 2“It’s a great space to both encourage and challenge each other over a couple drinks and a good read,” says Bobby Marchessault of Christian Books and Beer (currently mulling over Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? by Brian McLaren). Amen to books and beer.

Nor are book clubs homogeneous in form—in fact, they have evolved into a multitude of fascinating permutations. Santa Cruz’s Deb Hopewell belongs to a book club for couples that likes to call itself “a wine club with a book problem.” They tend to read books by foreign authors such as Wasted Vigil and A Marker to Measure Drift, and find the male/female mix to be a happy non-issue. (Note: Wine helps.)

Food, it seems, is an ever-present companion to great book conversation. Protti looks forward to book club meetings at Avanti restaurant, while Miriam Stombler’s group, the Bad Girl’s Book Club, likes to share “a sumptuous meal inspired by the book.” They recently indulged in mango lobster salad while sharing laughs and insights about the book Last Night at the Lobster.

A Book Club How-To

One thing is certain: fortified by Cabernet or chai, fancy feasts or simple scones; gathered on buses, in forests, church basements or online; book clubs are no endangered species. Instead, they are chameleons, endlessly adaptable and native to everywhere. They could use a few more dudes, of course, but men are participating in growing numbers. We all need a reason to eat and drink with friends, trade obscure historical facts, search out racy passages in Philip Roth novels, and show off pictures of our cars … I mean cats … I mean kids. Amazon’s Anti-Oprah book club lists some pretty manly titles—including a personal favorite, Confederacy of Dunces, as well as Slaughterhouse Five, also outstanding. Mark Zuckerberg has promised to read Creativity, Inc. by next Tuesday, so if you want to keep up, gentlemen, join in.

For the last six months, I’ve been a member of a wonderful book club with no clever name. But I was nervous about taking the plunge. They celebrated 25 years together at a retreat this past summer, and came back with customized book bags lined with fabric that displayed book titles they’d read over the years (I have a 13-page printout of the list).

Even in the wake of such impressive history, they were gracious enough to welcome a newbie, and I was honored to join them. When discussing books, they present a treasure trove of background information—maps, photos, author bios, related history, random artifacts—that fleshes out whatever we’re reading and brings it to life.

I, meanwhile, feel sort of like the smart-ass kid who claims her homework was eaten by the dog. But joining has reminded me that while we read alone, true understanding tends to grow best in the presence of others, cultivated by close listening and good questions, tested by different opinions and points of view, and reinforced by empathy and a willingness to meet halfway (sometimes geographically). Throw in some laughter, food, libation and props, and it’s a party.

If you choose to join a book club—and you should—here are a few rules of the road:

  1. Don’t flake. You made a commitment—not like the one you made to your ex or your diet, more like the one you made to your sanity and your self-respect.
  2. Read the book. The whole book. No, you can’t keep commenting on the only part you actually read. No, you can’t see the movie instead. No, you can’t try to postpone the meeting so you can finish the book. No, you can’t skip the meeting, claiming to have a death in the family, a sick pet, or a stalled car, if it’s not true. Read. The. Book. Even if the cocktails are fantastic, it’s still why you’re here.
  3. You will have to read some books you didn’t choose, and a few you don’t like. Be nice. When called upon to comment, don’t sum up by saying “Total crap.” Show class and ease into the disdain. Most book groups are actually interested in why you didn’t like a book.
  4. Pick paperback books that are still in print, people.
  5. You’ll probably encounter fellow book club members who occasionally say or do things that give you the urge to roll your eyes and unleash the snark. Resist this urge.
  6. Bring thoughtful discussion points, but no soliloquies or monologues.
  7. Hosting duties will eventually roll around to you. Don’t worry, the cat can handle a few guests.
  8. While drinking is admittedly a book club tradition, practice moderation. Drunken book talk can get very esoteric. Do you want to discuss what the hell Thomas Pynchon was trying to say after knocking back half a bottle of Merlot? Neither do I.
  9. Try to stay on topic. Wandering into the conversational woods is one of the joys of any book club, but be wary of going too far, lest you find yourself comparing notes on the best time to hit Costco and wondering, how did we get here?
  10. Look around the room. These are people who you might not run into under any other circumstances, but, like you, they’re passionate, curious readers who’ve chosen to come together around books and ideas. Bask in the glow.

Go to bookshopsantacruz.com/book-groups for information on book club mixers, and other resources.

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