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Book Clubs

by John Sledge

They go by a variety of names – Le Salon, The Blue Stockings, Second Thursday, Point Clear Book Club and The Book Group. On almost any given day in the Bay area, it is a good bet that somewhere a group of enthusiastic readers are gathered together to share their passion. No one has any idea how many book clubs there are in our area -- Page and Palette orders for 25 on the Eastern Shore alone -- but it is clear that they are numerous and robust.

Book clubs are nothing new, but in recent years have surged in popularity, driven in part, no doubt, by Oprah’s Book Club, the One Book One City program and the proliferation of chain bookstores. Publishers have noticed, supplementing their books with reading guides, interviews and suggested questions, and promoting special author tours and appearances. In an increasingly fragmented market, book clubs have proven to be an easily identifiable and potent niche group.

In an effort to learn more about how book clubs operate and what motivates their members, I recently visited four, two on the Eastern Shore and two in Mobile. In general, book clubs tend to be either social/light or intellectual/heavy. In both cases, membership is overwhelmingly female (of the 25 that Page and Palette serves, only three have male members), middle- to upper-middle class and ages mid-40s to retirement. They typically meet monthly in members’ homes and can only be joined by invitation.

My first stop was at the Point Clear Book Club, which met in the home of Judy Barnes. As members arrived they greeted one another and got bottled water before settling down in the gracious living room with its sweeping bay view. This club is a relatively young one at five years old, and had just finished reading “Princess of Cleves” by the Madame de Lafayette. Liddane Newman, a former English teacher, led with a fascinating overview of the book’s 18th-century historical context and then opened up the discussion. Few of the members seemed to have enjoyed the book -– “tedious” was the general consensus -- so discussion was mostly tepid.

Afterwards, various members told me that even though they considered “Princess of Cleves” a dud, they valued expanding their horizons and reading things they would not otherwise know about. One woman said she especially enjoyed the “quiet friction of discussion” among her peers, and another said she needed “the discipline” a reading club provides.

Second Thursday, a Fairhope reading club, is fifteen years old. On the day I visited, it met at the home of Grey and Katchie Cane, east of town amid a Jane Austen landscape of patchwork fields, copses of trees and scattered cows. This club grew out of one of Liddane Newman’s English classes at Faulkner Community College, and is definitely in the heavy/intellectual category. As in most book clubs, the members annually choose their titles by throwing out selections or themes and then voting on them. This year they are focusing on Japanese literature and for this particular meeting, “Tale of Genji” by Murasabi Shikibu, an 11th-century portrayal of court life. Shelley Leigh, an attractive woman with sparkling eyes and a keen intelligence, led this discussion. To everyone’s surprise, she revealed that she had read the book years before. When I asked her why, she described how alienated she had felt as a young wife from the North transplanted to Mobile. She had sought comfort and perspective in the “literature of isolation,” of which “Tale of Genji” is a famous example.

Of the dozen or so members present, few liked the book and the discussion lacked much passion. But in comments that echoed those of the Point Clear club’s members, these women said they liked deepening their insight, being among old friends and reading new and different things.

My two Mobile stops were at The Book Group (light/social) and Le Salon (heavy/intellectual). The Book Group is only two years old, but perhaps the most vibrant of the four. There are some 30 members, and on this occasion they were reading “The Secret Life of Bees” by Susan Monk Kidd. They met in the Spring Hill home of Mr. and Mrs. Selwyn Turner, sitting in a large sunroom crowded by oaks and magnolias. Mary Urquhart led the discussion, which was more spirited and freewheeling than any I had yet experienced. Everyone considered the book “simple” and “elementary,” but “a great conversation piece.”

My last visit was Le Salon, oldest of the lot at nearly 40 years, which met at the home of Iris Klein in a neighborhood west of the University of South Alabama campus. “We are serious readers,” one woman told me. Indeed, past books studied by this group inlcude “Swann’s Way” by Marcel Proust, “Ulysses” by James Joyce and the works of Mobile native E.O. Wilson. At this meeting they were discussing “Belle Canto” by Ann Pachett, a dramatic novel with strong musical themes. In between brisk exchanges, operatic selections sung by Renee Fleming were played.

When asked what they got from this group, these women were the most articulate and heartfelt of any I had yet interviewed, perhaps because of their long-shared history. One woman said the club was “a stablizing force in my life,” and another movingly related how her various rites of passage as wife and mother were made easier by her friendships with other members. McLeod Turner placed her hands on her lap, leaned forward and said with great conviction, “This group has been my church.” And Kay Kimbrough said that they were “hostage to ideas.”

In all four of the clubs I visited, whether social or intellectual, I was impressed with the wit, poise and intelligence of the members. These women have found common cause in their love of books and literature. I thank them all for allowing me to share their company and infectious joy.