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Bound by Books | How the simple ritual of reading together transforms lives in the East Bay. | By JoAnne Tobias

“Were you surprised when they executed all the readers?” I ask. The seven of us, women ranging from their 30s to their 60s, are crowded together on couches and stools, David Benioff’s City of Thieves balanced on our knees. Freshly cut dahlias cover every surface. Their thin petals had flickered like bright flames when we entered the living room an hour earlier, but their light has long since been extinguished, replaced by the icy Russian forest. As we analyze the main character’s unlikely search for a dozen eggs, we find ourselves flung into the turmoil and famine of the siege of Leningrad.

“Well, during times of war, literate people were considered dangerous,” answers book group member Christine Calabrese, who handles disability issues for the city of Oakland.

Several hours and glasses of Prosecco later, we’ve shared our favorite passages and dissected the characters’ various blunders and acts of bravery. Though the novels and libations vary, it’s a scene replayed countless times each week in East Bay living rooms, bookstores, and libraries, as well as across the country.

For the first time in more than 25 years, the number of American adults reading literature is on the rise, according to a 2009 study by the National Endowment for the Arts—a finding that reverses several dismal reports about the decline in literacy. And unlike previous generations of readers, today’s book lovers are reaching out to find each other, creating a rich, cross-continental web of reading communities.

In fact, according to Ann Kent, founder of Book Group Expo, San Jose’s annual two-day literary salon for readers and authors from all over the United States, today there are an estimated 4 to 5 million book discussion groups nationwide. Although the exact number of groups in the Bay Area is unknown, it’s clear our region breeds bookworms aplenty. San Francisco ranks among the top 10 cities in the country for the number of bookstores and books sold, according to a 2008 study by Central Connecticut State University. And thanks to the Bay Area’s social media savvy, coupled with a strong history of independent bookstores, our community of readers has never been more robust, or more varied.

During Book Group Expo events over the past four years, Kent says, countless readers have shared just how vital book clubs, as members often call them (although the term can also refer to a subscription-based form of book sales, as in Book-of-the-Month Club), are to their sense of well-being. “Someone actually told me,” she says, “‘Children grow up, husbands come and go, parents die, but my book group is forever.’”

And although storefront booksellers are struggling these days to stay afloat, the recession has only served to strengthen ties among readers. In fact, the book group population has increased 25 percent in the last five years, writes Joan Gelfand, president of the Women’s National Book Association, in The Huffington Post.

In other words, Kent says, “When life is at its most difficult, this is when you need a book group.”

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For the past five years, I’ve been a member of the typical, if perhaps unusually ambitious, group of Oakland-based book-lovers described above. Calling ourselves the Extreme Readers, we take pride in consuming quality fiction by the pound. As with the sports fad we’ve named ourselves after, there is even some element of physical risk involved: eye strain.

Selections often trigger impromptu pairing. We’ll combine Howard’s End with On Beauty, or devour the complete works of Jane Austen in order to better enjoy The Jane Austen Book Club. Someone nominates Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and readers show up having refreshed themselves with Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and The Trial.

So is voracious reading the key to our successful group? Or is it the steady supply of Chardonnay that fuels our discussions? “Neither,” says Lauren Zina John, a Bay Area book group facilitator and author of Running Book Discussion Groups (Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2006). According to John, who leads book discussions in public libraries, private homes, and synagogues, the secret to a thriving book club is simple: All members must agree on the group’s purpose. That may be deciphering Plato’s Republic, chatting through the latest fiction bestseller, or feasting on scones during Victorian selections.

There may be some book clubs who don’t talk much about the book, but the gathering still serves a purpose. Like a proud mother, John goes on to exclaim: “In fact, there’s no such thing as a bad book club.”

This should come as a relief to Kara Sellman’s Oakland-based book group. The club, consisting primarily of professional women in their 30s, started off as a way for the new mothers to exercise their brains by reading and critiquing books. But over time, the group morphed slightly, focusing more on socializing and less on literature. The women now show up at a local restaurant every four to six weeks and swap handfuls of favorite books before moving on to other topics.

But even if they don’t dissect plots like they used to, Sellman says, this group of reading moms is still connecting over books. “Our meetings always lead to more books,” she says, noting that everyone is more comfortable now that they’ve redefined their expectations. Without pressure to finish a specific book, members need do nothing more than show up to enjoy a guilt-free discussion of books—and life —in general.

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On a warm fall night, a dozen Oakland men in their 50s and 60s stand in a clean kitchen, sipping seltzer or Pinot Noir in preparation for tonight’s discussion. While our mothers’ book groups may have been ladies-only affairs, the demographic has shifted in recent years. “The predominant book group sample is all women, then all men,” Kent says. “Then men and women [together].”

The guys socialize and eat before officially starting in on the book du jour—Arthur Krystal’s The Half Life of an American Essayist, a dozen essays that touch on everything from the history of boxing to the evolution of the typewriter—selected by tonight’s host, Dave Blumgart, an Oakland nurse practitioner and medical auditor. While imbibing, they relive the pleasure of one of their last selections: George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. “What do you talk about when there’s no reporter listening?” I ask, curious why they aren’t bragging about their college-age kids or the joys of retirement.

“Politics. And women!” comes a volley of replies.

A glance at the potluck offerings—grilled salmon, gourmet pizza, and fine cheeses—dashes all old-fashioned stereotypes about male gatherings. That is, until Redge Martin, owner of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, admits that before they started coordinating their potluck contributions, meals had been hit or miss—for better or worse. Martin’s eyes glaze over as he reverently recalls one over-the-top menu from their early years. “One night everyone brought a dessert. We had six pies and three bottles of wine for dinner.”

Beyond the celebration of food and friendship, each meeting ensures being exposed to a different type of book. People, it seems, appreciate being prodded beyond their comfort zones. The one rule regularly enforced is that a member must have already read a book in order to recommend it. “It’s not enough that our wife’s book club raved about it,” says Martin.

Raleigh Redus, a retired Chevron executive, says that each discussion, no matter how volatile, brings him to address the fundamental question: “What did I learn about being human?”

His mention of fiery discussions piques my curiosity. So far, the evening’s talks have been more low-key than any I’ve ever attended. Where are the interruptions, the hand-waving? Why isn’t anyone slouching on the couch or refilling their glasses?

In fact, everyone is so well- behaved, and speaks in such civilized tones, that it takes me a while to realize they don’t actually agree on the book.

Dave Blumgart: “Who liked it?”

Sandy Golden: “I ran hot and cold.”

Howard Hatayama: “I lost my book in an airplane, somewhere over South Dakota.”

Raleigh Redus: “May I suggest that you subconsciously lost it?”

Roger Abraham: “This was affirmation why I don’t read short works. I need the whole dinner, not just appetizers.”

Paul Sugarman: “It’s a genre I’d never pick on my own.”

Redge Martin: “Well, that’s why we come to this group.”

In fact, according to Sue Schleifer, a life and business coach, as well as cofounder of a mixed-gender book group in her Dimond district neighborhood, expanding your literary boundaries can have lasting repercussions in your life.

“To consider things you otherwise wouldn’t could lead to more Yeses, more stepping out of your comfort zone,” says Schleifer, whose group is currently reading Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. “Who knows what will happen in this new place?”

In addition, she says, the act of viewing situations from another character’s or another member’s perspective increases your own capacity for understanding and compassion. As someone who helps people grow in their professional and personal lives, Schleifer encourages all such shifts in perspective—fiction-based or otherwise. It’s the starting place of transformation.

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Both Schleifer’s neighborhood group and the all-guy group in Oakland started off like most private book clubs—a handful of friends getting together over a love of books. Every year a few more members trickle in, until the group decides enough is enough. “Eight to 10 members seems to be the magic number,” says Kent. “That way, even with absences, you’ve usually got enough people for a good discussion.”

For would-be club members who are new to the East Bay, or who simply have a greater desire to discuss books than do their friends and acquaintances, there’s the public option. Many public libraries, including those in Berkeley, Oakland, Albany, and Alameda, offer free facilitated monthly book discussions. And then there are the many book clubs hosted by East Bay bookstores—among them Laurel Book Store and Diesel Books. A Great Good Place for Books, a 12-year-old independent bookstore in Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood, sells books to 85 clubs, attracting this astonishing number in part because it offers members a 10 percent discount—and advice—on book club selections.

A glance at the store’s prominently placed book club table reveals the diversity of their choices. Women Who Wine is reading Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread of Grace, a World War II novel documenting the underground Italian network that saved 43,000 Jews. The Piedmont Bookworms has selected True History of the Kelly Gang, an Australian outlaw tale. Stacks of Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, await the 21 Plus book group. A favorite of American discussion groups, this true account by an Iranian university teacher features a book club whose members risk everything in order to discuss forbidden Western literature.

On a blustery Monday evening in September, 12 devoted readers fold themselves into collapsible chairs in the cozy back room of A Great Good Place. Tucked into a triangle of space between the travel guides, the manga, and the science fiction, the book club will discuss Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us. The novel, set in Bombay, depicts the complex relationship between a wealthy woman and her servant. Although I know nothing about the book prior to attending the meeting, my nose tells me that India is on the agenda. Before I even locate the group, hidden by clusters of bookshelves and calendar racks, the unmistakable aromas of curries, chutneys, and samosas waft toward the front door. Whoever facilitates the discussion, it turns out, also brings food to fit the novel’s mood.

The club begins its discussion by reading aloud a few choice passages from Umrigar’s novel. “We are all passengers grappling with darkness, heading toward light, held together by that shaft of grace we call love,” intones facilitator Elaine Yates in a soft voice.

A few appreciative murmurs, and they’re off, peeling back the layers. The motives of the minor and major characters, caste systems, and even personal voyages to the lands in question—all are mentioned, compared, analyzed, scrutinized. Meanwhile, customers continue to meander through the store, drawn to the welcoming light, unhindered by the closed sign since the door has inadvertently been left unlocked. The door tinkles, the radio drones behind the counter, but the readers are all on the banks of the Ganges.

As the group breaks for the night, Yates’s smile is beatific. She’s clearly got the book bug. Most of her days are spent as a paralegal in an Oakland law firm. On days off from the bankruptcy firm, she works at the bookstore, selling books and facilitating book club meetings.

Recommending paperbacks may be less lucrative than dealing with bankruptcy law, but that’s no deterrent for Yates. “I don’t do it for the money,” she says. “I do it for the readers.”

Still, there is big money in book discussion groups. Kathleen Caldwell, owner of A Great Good Place for Books, puts it dramatically: “We wouldn’t have a business without book clubs.”

This fall, Books Inc.—a Bay Area independent bookstore chain that dates back to 1851—opened its latest branch on Fourth Street in Berkeley, just down the block from the former location of the now-defunct Cody’s Books. The chain offers dozens of in-house book clubs throughout the Bay Area, catering to fans of almost every conceivable genre. Members of the San Francisco–based Classics I Forgot to Read, for example, brush up on Anna Karenina or To the Lighthouse, while Down to a Science (also in San Francisco) dissects serious nonfiction such as David Ewing Duncan’s Experimental Man: What One Man’s Body Reveals about His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World. Given this strong history of building reading communities, it’s no surprise that within a month of opening its Berkeley doors, Books Inc. started its First Saturday book club.

Calvin Crosby, the store’s manager, says that the people who attend Books Inc.’s in-house book clubs take their books seriously. “We don’t discuss the dogs and kids,” says Crosby. “It’s about the book.”

Ann Kent, Book Group Expo founder, confirms what Caldwell and other bookstore owners already know from experience. “Several surveys have shown how many more novels book club members buy than [do] ordinary readers,” says Kent. “Whereas an average American buys two to four books a year, book club members buy 24 to 40 books.”

And that’s just taking into account traditional book clubs, groups that typically have up to a dozen members. Enter the online book club, and the buying power of the reader increases exponentially.

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One cyber club, Women Who Rock!, was started last October by Dale Marie Golden MacDonald and Apryl Rhinehart of Oakland. Within a month of launching, it went viral, jumping from 24 East Bay friends and colleagues to nearly 200 members across the United States, Hong Kong, and Hawaii. “There was definitely a need for this,” says MacDonald. “It’s the modern version of the quilting bee.”

Thanks to this online community, readers can chime in at 2 a.m. in their jammies, as the creators—both busy working moms—tend to do. MacDonald is vice president of Oakland’s Alta Alliance Bank and Rhinehart is founder of iToggle, an Oakland-based lifestyle management company. Both insist on making time in their schedules for reading and discussing—sometimes a tough act for the gainfully employed to manage, let alone those who are also raising children.

The format is a bonus: In the virtual world, traditional restrictions of time and space don’t apply. “How often have you driven home from [your] book club and realized something you forgot to say?” asks MacDonald. “With an online book club, the discussion isn’t limited to two hours a month.”

“The sharing goes on for weeks,” Rhinehart adds, “on your schedule.”

This virtual book club’s success reflects both a local and national trend toward online book groups. Books Inc. hosts an online book club directed at teen girls, Not Your Mother’s Book Club; the Oakland Public Library emails book chapters to readers and then hosts online discussions. According to a 2009 survey by ReadingGroupGuides, 54 percent of book clubs in the United States are on Goodreads, an online social network that works like a strictly literary Facebook, allowing readers to share and recommend favorite books (but not what they’re whipping up for dinner, or YouTube videos featuring their pets).

Since Goodreads was launched in January 2006 in Silicon Valley, over 2.5 million readers, including 21,000 book clubs, have signed on. “You always hear that reading is dying, but we see plenty of evidence that it’s not the case,” says Jessica Donaghy, community manager of Goodreads. “We see the excitement. It seems like there’s an insatiable appetite for reading.”

Catering to today’s increasingly cyber-savvy readers adds an extra challenge to Women Who Rock!’s book selections. Not only does a selection have to appeal to the women in the group, but members expect to be able to buy it as an e-book, available to download onto a Kindle or Nook, the small electronic devices that serve as hand-held reading computers.

Still, there were enough old-fashioned readers who opted for the paper version of Women Who Rock!’s first pick, Andrew Sean Greer’s nationally acclaimed novel, Story of a Marriage, to cause A Great Good Place for Books—which offers its 10 percent discount to Women Who Rock!—to empty its stock. “We sold close to 75 copies,” says owner Caldwell. “We ran out a couple of times.”

One advantage of the virtual book club was highlighted when MacDonald invited Greer to participate in the group’s online discussion of his book through back-and-forth posted messages. While the high-powered author, who lives in San Francisco, might not have chosen to attend an in-person meeting, there were fewer obstacles to his participation in the online realm. And so readers found themselves in the enviable position of posing their most burning question to Greer himself: Why didn’t the wife confront her husband about the gay affair?

And voilá—back came Greer’s thoughtful, gracefully phrased response: The characters were, in effect, a product of their time. Over the next few weeks, now–fully engaged readers posted their reactions to Greer’s comments, many making the leap from fiction to fact and wondering what commensurate errors in judgment their own generation would someday have to account for. One update at a time, the readers’ and author’s thoughts became available for perpetual reference.

Readers not only have the power to bring authors to their discussion groups, but their word-of-mouth enthusiasm drives trends in book sales. Forget the New York Times list—according to a 2009 survey by ReadingGroupGuides, 71 percent of readers rely on recommendations from friends as their primary source of information for selecting books.

To Luan Stauss, owner of Oakland’s Laurel Book Store, this isn’t a statistic—it’s a principle that’s helped her stay in business for eight years. “My bestseller list rarely matches the New York Times list,” Stauss says. Instead, she knows that she needs to shop for her specific group of readers. For certain of her male groups, for example, that means stocking up on nonfiction works that deal with current events: Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics, Shannon Brownlee’s Overtreated, and so on.

Sellman, the mother of three who ducks out once a month to swap books, says she also relies on her reading community’s choices rather than on critics’ picks. “It’s like when you’re a kid and you first discover Judy Blume,” she says. “It’s contagious. You read one after another and suddenly your friends are doing the same thing.”

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For every 21st-century reader logging on to Goodreads or her virtual book group in the dead of night, though, there’s another book lover who likes her literary discussions the old-fashioned way. Such is the case for one idiosyncratic East Bay group that has found enduring satisfaction in sharing each other’s tangible, physical presence as well as each other’s ideas. For the last 30 years, these six men and women from Berkeley and Oakland have been gathering twice a month in each other’s homes to read aloud to one another.

“We select things we may not have read as adults,” explains Warren Gould, an Oakland psychologist, whose wife, Outi, is also a member of the circle. First on the then-neophyte group’s agenda in 1979: major works of literature. The Bible. All of Dante’s works. 1001 Arabian Nights.

They carefully waded through The Canterbury Tales, spending several years covering just two pages at a time, stopping frequently to look up and delight in terms that were unfamiliar. It was, after all, being read in the original Olde English. Gould admits that their selections are on the ambitious side. “We only read major pieces of literature,” he says. “You don’t take it to the beach.”

Luckily, the night I visit, the group is taking a break for some light reading between brain-expanding tomes. We settle into the Goulds’ Montclair living room with high arching beams, warmed by a glowing fire. A small table holds a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and some grapes. The simplicity is touching. It is clear we are here for the literature, not to party.

Outi, a philologist from Finland with a focus on medieval studies, has selected I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere, a volume of short stories by Anna Galvada, translated from the French. Herta Weinstein, a retired psychiatrist from Berkeley who now teaches yoga to seniors, turns to me and says, “Scoot over, I’ll cuddle up to you and we’ll read together.” Duly scooted, we are soon plunged into one of mankind’s oldest pastimes.

“It’s old,” agrees Outi. “A group of people telling a story is a throwback.”

Hearing literature read aloud, experiencing it in a group, changes a story into something vital and alive. Communal reading means no skimming allowed. The words penetrate. Although only one person reads at a time, the group seems to walk through the text with one mind. As the passages flow forth in real time, there are abrupt intakes of breath, tiny giggles, and appreciative “hmms.”

The group easily finishes the 10-page story before disbanding for the night. With works of Chaucer, Dante, and Cervantes in the mix, that’s not usually the case. Still, no matter where they might stop in the story, they’ve made a pact not to open the book again until the next meeting. “Even if it’s a cliffhanger,” says Outi, “we have to wait two weeks.”

Some readers might consider that challenge impossible to pull off, but the group insists the sweet torment of delayed gratification is well worth it. Explains Porto, “I’m quite willing to defer reading ahead to enjoy the freshness of experiencing it together.”

Over the last three decades, these passionate readers have steeped themselves in great works of fiction, all the while sharing the gradual unfolding of their own narratives. They’ve celebrated professional achievements. They’ve also stuck together long enough to see careers peak and then wane into retirement. A few years back, they mourned the death of one member; today they support a founding couple grappling with an elderly parent’s growing frailty. Outi’s daughter, in utero when the group first started, is now 29 and an avid reader in her own right.

Their delight in shared reading is the main reason, members say, that the group has lasted for decades. “I love the experience of literature with someone else,” says Frank Porto. “The comments, the observation, the feedback. I just love that.”

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JoAnne Tobias is an award-winning writer based in Oakland. To read past articles, including her account of playing cello onstage with a rock ’n’ roll band, visit www.joannetobias.com.

 

 

Bookworm’s paradise: For the past 30 years, this mixed-gender East Bay group has bonded over weighty classics, wine, and a degree of intimacy that only long personal acquaintance (and a shared passion for Dante) can bring. Photo by Lori Eanes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Reading buddies: Dale Marie Golden MacDonald, left, and Apryl Rhinehart, founders of the Women Who Rock! online book group, confer in comfort (and pajamas). Photo by Lori Eanes.

 

 

 

 

Cover artist: Luan Stauss, owner of Oakland’s Laurel Book Store, keeps a close eye on her community’s literary tastes. Photo by Lori Eanes