Friday, January 9, 2009

I wanted to share this article I found about about book clubs and finding the right fit. It is something to think about.

Finding a well-fitting book group is no easy assignment.

By Melanie Cox McCluskey

For The Inquirer

Kristen Bellamy has tasted the sweet success of a well-read, well-run book club - and she misses it desperately.

Bellamy, a physician liaison for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tried out a couple of book clubs in Boston before moving to Philadelphia in June.

The first club, made up of strangers pulled together via Craigslist, struggled to decide on book choices. Then she struck gold with her second group - in fact, she still asks the members what they're reading.

Now living in Fishtown, she tried a book club she found on, but she said it felt awkward, and the discussion of the novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics was "very cursory, very surface."

For bookworms who are social butterflies, a book club is the perfect excuse to dig into a much-hyped novel or a juicy memoir and then to toast or roast its pages with like-minded individuals. But for many book lovers like Bellamy, finding the right fit is harder than it looks.

Like literature's magical formula of setting, character development and plot, the chemistry of a successful book club involves a delicate balance of spoken and unspoken rules. The size of the group, the members' commitment to reading the assigned book, and the leadership style all shape a club's success.

For Bellamy, 29, the top priority is a group that gets along well but can stay focused; book clubs, she notes, often take too quick a turn for the personal. "A lot of times it's talk about the book for five minutes but then, 'What's going on with you?' " Bellamy says.

Kym Silvasy-Neale of South Philadelphia also dabbled in book clubs that were less than perfect matches. She remembers one especially large group, diverse in viewpoint, gender and age.

"The older crowd felt they had the right to put you down because you didn't live in a certain time or you didn't understand feminism," Silvasy-Neale says, adding that she often felt stifled amid the strong personalities. "There were lots of heated arguments and yelling."

Silvasy-Neale, now 39, attended four or five meetings before dropping out. Determined to develop a fair, democratic and civilized environment, she started her own local book club within a Yahoo online group. A college textbook sales representative for W.W. Norton & Co., Silvasy-Neale said she started the club for the camaraderie she felt she was missing by not having a typical office job.

Four years later, her Philly Book Lover's Group has evolved into the club she always dreamed of. A core group of about 12 women ages 25 to 40 not only meet once a month to discuss what they're reading, but also nurture new friendships that extend to outside social activities. They invite one another to Christmas parties, socialize at fund-raising events, and vacation in Las Vegas together.

But having a strong, cohesive core didn't happen overnight, Silvasy-Neale says.

"It's like dating. You're constantly going on blind dates. It's taken a lot of members to come in and out of the group to find members who are like us."

Silvasy-Neale says her group places a high value on respect for others' opinions, which can lead to self-censorship.

During the October discussion of Loving Frank: A Novel, Silvasy-Neale says she and others held back some of their feminist comments out of respect for a member's mother, who identified herself as a conservative Republican. Hearing that, Silvasy-Neale conjured up stereotypes of a traditional stay-at-home mother from a previous generation.

That meant it took longer than usual for members to warm up to the discussion of a character who abandons her husband and children to live with her lover in Europe. "A lot of members were pulling back so as not to offend this woman."

Kathy Volk Miller, an English professor at Drexel University and coeditor of the Painted Bride Quarterly literary magazine, underscores the importance of finding like-minded people in organizing or joining a book club. But more important than worldview is agreement on what members hope to get out of the club.

"If you need an excuse to socialize, that is different than people who really want to discuss literature," Volk Miller says. "Everybody has to be on the same page."

Readers belonging to more formalized groups are likely to take the reading more seriously and treat the meeting like a literature class, Volk Miller says, while more social groups risk falling apart from lack of structure and a mix of attitudes ranging from utterly devoted to not serious at all.

Bellamy is among those committed readers frustrated by uninvolved club members.

"Less than half the time does everyone read the book, which is my pet peeve," Bellamy says. "I'm such a nerd - as soon as I find out what the book is, I go and get it."

Volk Miller also sees value in appointing a leader who can create rules, structure the discussion, defuse any potentially volatile discussions, and choose the books. Because literature is so subjective, Volk Miller says, assigning a book can feel too personal.

For groups having a hard time deciding on a book, Volk Miller suggests using an arbitrary source, like the New York Times Best-Sellers list.

"You have to have an intellectual center or anarchy will reign," Volk Miller says.

Joyce Homan organizes the monthly women's reading group at Giovanni's Room, a gay-friendly bookstore at 12th and Pine Streets. When she first began leading the discussions, she said she used online literature guides. Now, she says, the questions come easily and often lead to controversial discussions that manage to remain respectful.

Homan says the group comprises as few as seven and as many as 19 women depending on the monthly book choice, is mostly gay or bisexual, and has a mix of ages and ethnicities.

"It definitely broadens your viewpoints," Homan says of the controversy that sometimes develops from the discussions of women's literature. "Your dearly held beliefs aren't necessarily held by the people in your group.

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