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Danville Express

Cover Story - September 5, 2008

A good read

Book clubs open a wider world of reading to members

by Julie Nostrand

Danville resident Megan Garcia has loved to read since she was a schoolgirl. Yet after years of reading alone, she felt her choices were stagnant. Looking for a way to expand her literary horizons, she asked a few women she worked with if they were interested in forming a book club and she's glad she did.

Ten years later, the Danville Social Book Club still gathers monthly to discuss good reads. In fact, their group has outlasted the software company where most of its members met. Over the years, they've read fiction, non-fiction and even a few classics. They've celebrated birthdays, new jobs and more than 15 babies.

"Being in a book club pushes me to read," said Garcia. "It gives me a reason to read and hang out with my friends."

Garcia, now a mother of three young sons, isn't the only resident who enjoys reading and talking about books with her friends. Even in a time when the Internet and TIVO'd television compete for everyone's free time, book clubs still draw members.

Book clubs are everywhere. Most Danville schools host morning book groups for their students. There's one available at the library. Neighbors, friends and sometimes strangers meet in coffee shops, living rooms, churches and auditoriums to celebrate the joy of reading through a dialogue on books.

A book club - or reading group - is a collection of people that gets together on a regular basis to discuss books. Typically the members have read the book before attending the meeting, but for some informal groups, this isn't a requirement.

Participating in a reading group adds variety to a reader's book selections as well as offering members the chance to share ideas, hear different perspectives, and discuss themes found in a book.

Just as books can range from humorous to humdrum, from lavish to lusty, book clubs come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Garcia's group of 12 friends operates in a classic reading group fashion. Each December members meet for a holiday social and plan monthly hosting duties for the upcoming year. Then a few weeks before their meeting, the hostess announces her book selection. Members either buy or borrow the book and get to reading. Then on the third Tuesday of every month, they meet to discuss it.

Some months when new babies and work travel swamp members, the group chooses not to read but still gets together for dinner. And this summer the group tried something different by selecting Walter Farley's "The Black Stallion," so members could read with their school age children.

At every meeting, the hostess leads a loose discussion about the selected book. Depending on the book, the chitchat may or may not spend a great deal of time focused on the main themes. Often, the book acts as a springboard to other conversations.

"It gives us the chance to discuss something with other women that you wouldn't talk about in normal conversation," said Brianna Read, a Danville resident and book club member.

Julie Barnard of Rakestraw Books agrees. As the coordinator for the store's book club and resident Book Group Goddess, she's gotten to know a lot about reading groups.

"I don't think it's about the books," said Barnard, one sunny afternoon in her shop. "It's more about people who have a common interest spending time together."

The club Barnard facilitates is a diverse group that meets monthly in the store during the day. About 10-12 regulars attend most meetings and the group is always open to new members.

For her group, Barnard picks books that will generate good discussion or tie to some other store happening. Or sometimes she just chooses four and five books and lets the group decide which to read. She then serves as the group's discussion leader, kicking off the meeting with a probing question or offering a different opinion if conversation wanes.

Readers can greatly benefit from participating in a sponsored book group, like Rakestraw's. Depending on the host organization, a book club may receive consistent facilitation, a meeting location and a book selection process that focuses picks on a specific area of interest. The only drawback may be that not all sponsored book clubs are open for anyone to join.

The book club affiliated with the Alamo-Danville Newcomers Club, whose mission is to enrich the social lives of its members, is only open to members. However, the Newcomers Club is open to anyone who wants to get more involved in the community, not just people who are new to town.

"We have some avid readers in our group," said Debbie Kosich, the Newcomers book club coordinator. "It's part of the fun to have others to discuss what we've read. We have such interesting responses, both the good and the bad. That makes for discussions that keep us coming back."

The Alamo-Danville Newcomers Club's book group is big - nearly 30 members gather when it meets on the third Friday of every month. Members may divide into smaller groups for discussions.

Due to its size, the discussions are more structured than smaller clubs. Most of the time an online discussion guide is used to jumpstart the conversation and members sometimes download author profiles to enrich the meeting.

"Some really nice friendships have formed through this group," added Kosich.

For some readers, time is so tight they find it difficult to attend monthly meetings due to work or family obligations, but they still want to participate in a reading community.

The Danville's Passing Book Club is a group perfectly structured for the busy working professional. This is a book group that only meets once a year.

When members meet annually, they discuss the prior year's selections and buy two new books. Members collaborate on their purchases to ensure there are no duplicates. Then for the rest of the year the group acts as an exchange. Participants pass two books every four weeks to another member in a pre-determined order. Every reader is guaranteed to receive more than 20 different books during the course of a year.

Members enjoy ultimate flexibility in this approach. They can choose to read the selections or not before the books are passed along. There are no meetings to attend, so no worries if a book isn't finished.

"We'd highly recommend this type of book club for those people who like to read a variety of books, and who maybe don't have the time or inclination to meet with a group regularly," said founder Jean Lindberg of Danville. "It's great for working people, and also people who want to have a good book to read at very little cost."

All 13 members of Lindberg's Passing Book Club live in the Danville West neighborhood, which helps the group trade the books easily, and every year the passing order is switched so members meet new neighbors.

While this structure is unconventional, the club has been reading together for eight years, just as long as many other successful, conventionally organized reading groups.

"At first, people are kind of thinking, 'A book club that doesn't meet to discuss the books?' But now that we have formed it, we really wouldn't have it any other way," said Lindberg.

How to form a book club

* Start by inviting friends, neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances who like to read.

* Select a location for meetings. Smaller groups can meet comfortably in someone's house, larger groups may need to consider meeting rooms at the library or other public places.

* Aim for a consistent meeting day and time that members can put on the calendar. This will increase attendance.

* Decide how your group will select books. Some reading groups dedicate one meeting a year to book selection, while others make their choices monthly.

* Consider taking a relaxed approach. Some members may be unable to finish a book or just disinterested in the selection, but will still enjoy the discussion and may have something interesting to say about the read.

* Improve the quality of discussion by using one of the many free online reading guides. Some groups even hire a professional facilitator for a fee.

* Enliven your selections by introducing annual themes. For instance, your group may want to tackle only classics one year or may try reading women writers who've published since the year 2000. Your creativity is the only limit to potential themes.

* Have fun. Reading is a pleasurable activity. Enjoy this chance to broaden your reading perspective, learn something new and make friends.

Book club picks

The four book clubs featured in this story shared some of their favorite reads.

Danville Social Book Club:

"1000 White Women" by Jim Fergus

"Atonement" by Ian McEwan

"The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger

"The Other Boleyn Girl" by Philippa Gregory

"Girl With The Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier

Rakestraw:

"Loving Frank" by Nancy Horan

"Run" by Anne Patchett

"The Book Thief" by Marcus Zuzak

"The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" by Mark Twain

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Passing Book Club:

"Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen

"Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson

"The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz

"Midwives" by Chris Bohjalian

"Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

Alamo-Danville Newcomers Club:

"Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen

"Suite Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

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