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What Is a Book Club?

by Joan L. Cannon

How many who read these entries belong to book clubs?

It's a funny thing, probably due in part to the size of the tiny farming village where we once lived that I never even knew of a book club during my years of mothering and waiting for the breadwinner to come home. I think I'd have loved a book club. It would even have been fun to be hostess in my turn.

A year or so ago, I was invited to attend a tea given by the combined membership of all the book clubs in the town where I now live. A presentation was scheduled for the proprietor of the much-loved local independent book store cum gift shop. She is a legend in the area for her teas as well as author signings and the eclectic choices in her store. There were at least 300 in attendance. The place (the largest fellowship hall available in a local church) was crammed. It seems that in a town with a population under 25,000, there are dozens of book clubs!

Now I find myself surrounded by book clubs literally.

In my innocence, I thought a book club would bear some resemblance to an English class, presumably without grades or written reports. Everyone would read the same book, and then the meeting would take place with everyone discussing the chosen volume for that session.

When I asked around and discovered that I knew no one for whom that was the accepted practice, a friend told me that in her club a single member offers a program on a book of her choice. She (or he) reads the book and prepares what amounts to an old fashioned book report for the club meeting. Any discussion inspired by the book is incidental, taking place after the program. I mentally shook my head in disbelief. As an English major and later an English teacher, I thought I'd been there and done that, and that was really enough. They invited me to talk about my newly-published novel. Of course, I was thrilled, but when I was invited to join that club, I declined.

I was invited to give a program at another book club. The member explained that she was responsible for the program a couple of weeks hence and said she had no idea what to do or of anyone to invite to present one. When I inquired about how the chosen books were used for the program, she explained that they weren't used at all. Each member purchases a book, each book is passed around in a set rotation through the year, and nothing else concerning specific books is involved with that club. I had to bite my tongue to refrain from asking why this is called a book club.

In desperate need at the time of something anything to occupy my mind, I volunteered to do a program for her group. It wasn't just because I already knew that some clubs provide varied and luscious refreshments as part of their meetings and that the hostess is a chef in her own right but I also knew she lives in a house renowned for its gardens and furnishings. I'd met her often enough to know I really like her. She accepted my offer. It dawned on me after that conversation that I had a heck of a nerve, and that she was on a dreadful spot if she preferred to make her own choice of speaker and/or subject.

Having stuck my proverbial neck in the proverbial noose, I began to cast about for a suitable subject, and naturally (I thought) hit upon a version of a book review. I named the book, gave my friend a quick blurb, and she approved. I thought about how much time (at least a half hour) I'd need to fill, and realized that my teaching days were long gone. The book was huge and fascinating, and I'd have to half-way read it again if I were to be able to talk properly about it.

Three more possible subjects were considered and rejected before I hit on one I hoped would be new to the ladies and might be something that would interest most of them. It all went off much better than I expected it might; the audience was attentive and complimentary, and I was invited to the next meeting as a guest.

This time the program was given by an author. She brought her books to the meeting for sale (something I had deliberately not done at the previous meeting, which demonstrates again how hopeless I am at promotion). Delicious refreshments were beautifully served with gleaming silver in a beautiful home. The whole affair was something Lillian Hellman or Claire Booth Luce might have staged, completely without any discussion of books. The presenter's weren't familiar to the audience, which meant only she could talk about them, that is, until several groups began to talk of what they'd recently been reading as they assembled to collect their umbrellas and depart.

Needless to say, I have a lot to learn about book clubs.

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