By Valerie Reinke
Like The Slow Food Movement, The Book Club is a quiet revolution against an ever faster-paced world. It seems to reflect a universal longing for human connection. For substantive conversation. And for the sharing of ideas, beliefs and values—if not a glass or two of merlot. Catherine Purves, a book club overachiever (she belongs to three), is adamant though that in spite of the allure of snacks and wine, the book is the thing.
“I know people who think we just get together and drink, but in all three of my clubs we really do talk about the book.” Purves is a member of two open book groups—one at the Bainbridge Public Library and the other at Eagle Harbor Book Co.—plus one she started with an assist from local Facebook group Bainbridge Islanders. In November 2016 she got rid of her satellite dish, stopped watching television and posted online that she wanted to start a book club. She received an immediate and enthusiastic response. “Nineteen people expressed their support,” she said, “and 10 people came out for our first meeting, and we’re still going strong.”
A recent visit to a meeting of Words & Wine at Purves’ home confirms the group is thriving. The members, all women, range in age from 39 to 68 and are from diverse backgrounds—people who might otherwise never have crossed paths if not for a desire to talk about books. Purves said that their “synchronized reading” has been a catalyst for connection. “We get to know each other through our feelings about the book,” she explained. “It’s different than just the standard kind of small talk that people typically do.”
The book under the microscope that particular night was “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.” The conversation was lively with ideas and opinions traded and rebutted, but all with kindness, civility and no shortage of laughter—a healthy model for discourse. The women of Words & Wine are in good company. It is estimated that there are more than 5 million book club members in the United States. Over the years Eagle Harbor has supplied books for more than 85 Bainbridge clubs, according to its book group coordinator, Kathie Steele. Steele singled out The Friends of Mrs. Bomblatt as a contender for the longest-running book club on the island, going on 50 years.
Group names on the store’s impressive book club roster are as quirky as you would expect from islanders. Among them are Who Picked This Book? (a dreaded question if your selection has proven unpopular), Novel Women, On the Same Page and Women of Wit-erature. Book clubs do love their wordplay. Book discussion groups were not always so common. Credit for their rise in popularity is certainly due in part to Oprah’s Book Club, which catapulted the gatherings into the mainstream in 1996. By inviting her enormous fan base to take part, Oprah advanced the idea that you don’t have to be an academic to read and discuss literature. Her emphasis was on the value of personally relating to a book. It was a brave new paradigm and book clubs started popping up everywhere.
And we mean everywhere. Consider Ferry Tales, the brainchild of former Bainbridge librarian Audrey Barbakoff that meets once a month on the 4:45 p.m. Bainbridge-bound boat from Seattle. The book is chosen from the library’s robust supply of book group kits and anyone can drop in. Its leader, librarian John Fossett, describes the core members as “a half dozen stalwart supporters who rarely miss a gathering and love to talk about books,” but many others float in and out as schedules allow.
Fossett loves it when commuters, angling to be the first off the ferry, end up joining in. “We sit quite close to the exit doors,” he said. Back on land, Mistie Fain and Jen Fernandes are preparing for their monthly book club gathering, the BI Book (and Wine) Club, which is of no relation to Words & Wine other than a love of the beverage. Fain is a bit of a serial book clubber. She started one in NYC when she lived there, one in the San Francisco Bay area after she relocated, and finally established this one on Bainbridge five years ago. Each was a way to meet interesting local people.
Fain believes that the home environment is key to the experience. “It lends itself to getting to know each other better,” she said. “You see where someone lives, their families may be about, pets may join the group.” But home-based clubs are not for everyone. BookBrowse, which researches book club trends, found that half of men surveyed—guys who are not in a book club, but who would like to be—prefer a club that meets in a public place. Only 15 percent would want to meet in a home. The groups that meet at Eagle Harbor Book Co. bear that out. One evening, in one corner of the store, a boisterous speculative fiction group—an intergenerational mix of both men and women— debates the perennial question suggested in that month’s book, “Life After Life”: If you could travel back in time, would you kill baby Hitler?
In another corner of the store, Readers Circle—again a mix of men and women—is discussing “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks.” This is not their typical book choice, said Susan Braun, who has facilitated the group for eight years. Nonetheless its members are looking forward to meeting the book’s author, Amy Stewart, due to visit the store soon. John Murray, Braun’s husband and a loyal member of the Circle, feels that bringing people together from diverse occupations is critical to a book group’s success. “Our careers have shaped our minds so that we perceive the same book differently,” he said. Club regulars include a physical therapist, a civil engineer and a sociology professor among others.
Braun agrees. She said that her biggest challenge is facilitating when there is total agreement. “There’s nothing worse than 10 people sitting around and they all adored the book—there is no conflict, there are no discussion points!” Julie Davis, in true book club fashion, sees it differently. “I do love it when there’s a consensus of the right book at the right time,” she said. As an example, she pointed to a selection from last year, “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman. “We all needed a humane book that made us think and laugh.”
Davis, founding member of the Highbrow Honeys—a group that came together 19 years ago as a spinoff from their children’s playgroup—estimates that they have shared 160 books. Although most of the kids are now off to college, the group has stuck. “Being together with good friends and books is important to all of us.” On this point Braun doesn’t mind consensus. “Books are not meant to be read in isolation—they’re meant to be shared. I don’t know anybody who’s an avid reader who doesn’t want to talk about what they’ve read.”