I didn’t have to search too far for my first book club profile—I decided to start with the one I belong to. This Philadelphia-based book club focuses mostly on literary fiction and has members across the city and from the Main Line. When we’re not reading books, we’re nurses, doctors, financial planners, parents, professors, editors, interior designers, speech therapists, artists—it’s quite a diverse group, which adds so much flavor to our monthly book discussions. I had the pleasure of talking with Amy Weber, one of the founding members of the group, to get a sense of the book club’s beginnings as well as how it’s evolved over the years. Thanks, Amy!
How and when did the book club start?
Amy: I used to be a member of a book club in Chestnut Hill. All the members were well-educated, perfectly pleasant women, but they all happened to be about 15 years older than I was, and were at a completely different stage in their lives. The conversations frequently devolved into which was the best choice for 5th grade homeroom teacher, and how to juggle soccer practices and day camps. I was a resident physician, married but childless, and my husband lived in another state out of educational necessity.
Anyway, I was in this book club, and I was complaining to a friend that my non-book interests just didn’t fit. The friend (Annette) said we should just start our own book club…and it all fell into place. She invited her neighbor, Heidi, and they found a few others, and we had our first meeting in early November of (I think) 2001. Her son, Dante, and Annette’s son, Johannes, were both 2 at the time.
Who are your members and how did you meet?
Amy: I am very proud that our book club has survived for so many years. We have had many people join the group, and many have moved away for geographical or work reasons. We even had one member who left in order to free up enough time to find a husband…and she was successful in that endeavor! We tend to have between 4 and 12 women attending any given meeting. All of us have busy lives—mostly professionals who are working mothers—but once we choose a date, we really make book club a priority. The current group contains a speech therapist, a college English professor, an ophthalmologist, a nurse-midwife, several businesswomen in the fields of finance, HR, and technology, a technician in exercise physiology, an interior designer and a mom currently at home with her children. The variety of different backgrounds and areas of expertise makes each discussion fun!
What kinds of books do you read? How do you choose? What criteria do you use?
Amy: We read mainly mid-list literary novels, but occasionally non-fiction or short stories. We meet at one member’s house (in a loose rotation), and the hostess scheduled for the next month brings 3 or 4 books for consideration. She presents them, we discuss, and sometimes there is an obvious consensus. We generally exclude books which have already been read by members, unless that person is enthusiastic about discussing it. Sometimes we have to vote, and there have been times when multiple votes have been required. The decision of what to read can be heatedly debated—sometimes even more emotionally than the actual discussion of the book. Once the book is chosen, we try to find a date when most members can make it. We usually try for 3-6 weeks in the future, depending on the length of the book.
Are there any selections that were universally loved? Any that were particularly divisive?
Amy: Universally loved: It’s funny—I have a reputation for struggling to enjoy short stories, but I think we all really enjoyed three different collections of short stories which hung together well and felt more like a novel: Olive Kittredge,A Visit From the Goon Squad, and The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story. We also have enjoyed novels by John Irving, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth, and Kazuo Ishiguro, among many, many others. On Chesil Beach was a tiny book describing a truly awful honeymoon, but it stuck with many members over the years. In reality, though, the most loved books make for a rather lackluster meeting. It’s too easy for everyone to sit around saying, “I really loved this book” and “Yeah, me, too!” The difficult and/or unpleasant books make for bad reading experiences but great discussions. Some of those include Suttree, Gould’s Book of Fish, Midnight’s Children (my own all-time favorite book) and our very first book The Danish Girl (which is currently being made into a movie starring Eddie Redmayne). Some people don’t like fantasy/sci-fi, some hate non-fiction, some prefer lots of detail and hate Irish spare prose, some detest a neatly tied-up ending. No matter—the members are good-natured about reading the book and discussing it thoughtfully.
What are meetings like—give us a sense of the order and feel of the meetings.
Amy: Our meetings always begin at 7:30 pm, and members are generally prompt. We catch up and have non-book conversations, usually with snacks, for about 1/2 hour, and then sit down and discuss the book over heavy hors d’oeuvres or dinner and wine. We talk for about 1.5 hours, then select the book and date for next month, and then gradually disperse. Although there is a nucleus of members who live in the same neighborhood, some of us live in more far-flung suburbs. I think the husbands and kids of members hosting are surprised at the volume and vociferousness of the discussions. Most of us are really passionate about books, and that’s what makes a good member of a book club!
How would you say your book club is different from other book clubs?
Amy: One special feature of our book club is that we usually attempt to match theme food to the book being discussed. The most outstanding example of this is when we talked about Cutting for Stone, and Paulette’s husband prepared a full Ethiopian feast for all of us. I have laid an English afternoon tea for a British book, we have had takeout Chinese when appropriate, special cocktails or desserts, as well as creative interpretations…one hostess was stumped for theme food, and she prepared a delicious orange-flavored cake, as the setting for the book was East Orange, NJ.
I really think the different fields we come from makes the discussion lively. Also, everyone really takes the time to read the book thoughtfully and commit to the group. This is not easy in today’s crazy over-scheduled culture. We used to have a rule that the book had to be available in paperback to save on costs, but now many of us use a Kindle, iPad, or library book instead. Technology has progressed, even since our club began.
Any advice for those looking to start their own book club?
Amy: Advice…Just Do It! I think many people would love to join a book club, but they are too worried they aren’t intellectual enough or don’t have a proper background in literary criticism. If you love to read the experience is so much better having someone to discuss with. Many times, I find myself reading another book during the month, and wishing it were for book club, so that we could rip it apart or revere it sufficiently. Book club is also a great way to find other books to read, as most of us read a lot more each month than just the assigned book. Also, you don’t have to know all the members beforehand…as long as one person vouches for a new member, it’s great to add new perspectives by adding new people.