Book clubs No longer your grandmother's social outlet

The scene in this Northwest Washington apartment would, at first glance, seem like your typical Tuesday-night dinner party among girlfriends trying to reconnect.

Seven or eight women sitting around drinking wine, nibbling on cheese and crackers, burning candles and listening to Norah Jones is a pretty standard scene for twenty-something workaholics. Everyone reiterates how much they have missed seeing one another because, as they put it, they “have just been swamped at work.”

Then someone mentions Virginia Woolf, and everyone remembers why they are really here tonight — for their sometimes monthly book club, of course.

The group was started by women who have known one another since college. One of the founders works for a congressman on Capitol Hill and solicited some of her fellow staffers for the cause. Each member pulled in a couple of friends, and the club is now an eclectic mix that has grown from three to roughly 10 members.

The group includes two paralegals, a reporter and a few women in graduate school. One member recently moved to London to fulfill her lifelong dream of living overseas, leaving all her friends back home asking, “Do those Brits like to read as much as we do?”

The women in this club have many different professional interests, but they possess a common love for reading and a desire to get involved in something outside of work.

The reasons these women joined the club range from a desire to make new friends to finding a new social outlet to getting over a breakup and getting their independence back.

Oprah Winfrey changed the stigma surrounding these literary gatherings after starting her own book club back in 1996. The media star regularly selects a book of her choice and then invites the author and viewers onto her show for follow-up discussions. To date, the club has more than 460,000 members who subscribe to oprah.com, where they can access study guides and connect with other readers from their same city, state or anywhere around the world.

Book clubs are no longer your grandmother’s social outlet. In today’s society, more and more younger adults — both men and women — feel the need to belong somewhere other than work.

“The book club provided me with another outlet of friends,” said one Hill staffer who asked not to be identified. “It’s also nice to be able to have an intellectual conversation about a book, rather than just talk about work or the news. Sometimes I miss having those discussions like we all did back in college.”

The women this night said they joined the group because they thought it would be a fun way to get together and discuss potentially interesting books, which they might not otherwise read.

“I started the club because I was constantly reading and talking to my friends about what I was reading,” said Meghan Fitzgerald, a paralegal and one of the club’s three founders. “But if my friends hadn’t read the same books, they couldn’t add to the discussion, so it seemed more logical to start a book club where we could all have a discussion and learn about new books people had read and enjoyed.”

Amanda Lenhart, a research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is a member of two book clubs. She values them not only for the intellectual stimulation but also because they let her meet new people, such as her current boyfriend.

While some book clubs are more structured and meet several times a month, others are laid-back, meeting only when all members can find time in their hectic schedules. These groups usually come with other perks such as dinner, dessert or wine.

The nice thing about a book club is you can make it what you want it to be. Some members take it very seriously, reading everything cover to cover and taking notes in the margins. Others skim the novels or never read the books at all. These members have a harder time keeping up with the discussions and are often more interested in the wine instead.

“I’ll admit it’s challenging to always read every book cover to cover,” one Hill staffer said. “As much as I feel out of the loop when I haven’t read the book, people have to understand that we all have busy schedules and try to compromise and lighten up a bit.”

“Our book club is a great way to learn others’ interpretations and reflections on a book and what another person got out of it,” said Jessica Fitzgerald, a government employee who started her own book club with her twin sister Meghan.

“Individuals are attuned to different things, so one person will remember an aspect of a book more than another or will have a different view of the author’s intentions,” Fitzgerald said. “It serves to broaden my own thinking about literature.”

Different book clubs have different ways of selecting the books they read. While some groups draw out of a hat to see who gets to pick the next novel, others agree on something that no one has read.

“One of the things about my book clubs that I really like is the fact that we select our books based on consensus,” said Lenhart. “We all have to agree on the books we read, and that way no one is stuck reading books that they really aren’t interested in.”

But some women said that exposure to new kinds of literature they may not otherwise choose is exactly what they value most.

The women interviewed for this article all said it was refreshing to read something other than the daily newspapers or work-related materials, citing The Washington Post, Time, The Hill, Roll Call and CNN online as regular reading.

Dana Hopings, a management consultant for TATC Consulting, said one obstacle is choosing original books to read as opposed to picking whatever is hot on the paperback best-seller list.

“It is hard to be assured of a really good read that no one in the group has read,” Hopings said. “You are lucky if you can achieve two of the three.”

Some said that while they wouldn’t change anything about their get-togethers, they fear their book clubs have turned into more of a happy hour and gossip fest than a literary circle.

“This has become more of a social hour because many of us do not get to see each other otherwise,” said Clio Timmerman, a paralegal in Washington. “Perhaps there should be two different meetings — one to discuss the book and one to just catch up with friends.”

For others, being in a book club offers them fellowship and camaraderie, a forum for waxing political or time to seek advice among friends.

“This club can be more cathartic than anything else,” said one member, who used the example of how one woman who had just broken up with her boyfriend chose Watermelon by Marian Keyes. It is a fictitious story about an Irish woman who regains her self-confidence after her husband leaves her the same day she gives birth to their child.

The Fitzgeralds said that, in their club, members draw out of a hat to see who chooses the next month’s read. The lucky winner then hosts the next dinner discussion at his or her apartment.

So far the group has read Fall on Your Knees, The DaVinci Code, Lolita, The Human Stain, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Five Quarters of the Orange, Watermelon and To the Lighthouse.

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