Women, Words, Wisdom, Wine – That’s What Makes Book Clubs Divine
If I were asked to design a Coat of Arms for Orinda, I would propose we include the following:
• Assorted fresh veggies (to represent our Saturday Farmers’ Market);
• A matador (to represent our top-notch high school);
• Some beautiful golden hills (perhaps, but that might be hard to capture, and end up looking like potatoes);
• A high jump, with the bar set on the highest rung (because, you know, Orinda);
• And in the center of it all, a book.
Orindans love their books. And they love reading their books and discussing them with their book clubs.
This past month I’ve conducted some book club research, dropping in on several local gatherings, which, I must say, greatly enhanced my typically rather drab weeknight social lineup. Even though each book club I visited was delightfully and inherently unique, I easily found several common threads:
Participants are in it for the long haul (even though they didn’t necessarily know that in the beginning.)
Most of the groups I met had been together for at least 10 years. When asked to be interviewed about her club (named Title Nine, after the original nine founding members and, of course, equality for female athletes), Pam Martin gushed, “You’ve asked us to talk about something we love; it’s like you asked about one of our children!”
Jennifer Coon, founder of another local book club, Ladies Night Out, moved to Truckee (Nevada County) but still drives back to Orinda every month with her husband so they can both attend their book club meetings. Frank Coon is part of a men’s club that has also been meeting faithfully for the past decade.
Book club discussions are way more fun than English class, because:
• There are no right or wrong answers;
• Your opinion actually matters;
• Evening meetings often involve adult beverages;
• Summer beach reads occasionally pass for respectable, or at least therapeutic, literature;
• Joy-zapping terms like “thematic narrative contextualization” are banned, even if you went to Stanford.
Members rarely are penalized for failing to finish a book, unless you count spoiler discussions, which are universally recognized as self-inflicted punishment.
Book club bonds run deep
“My book club is like my family,” says Laura Traxler. “As a result of our bonding, our husbands and children also became friends.”
Traxler’s group, which has been meeting regularly for more than 10 years, hosts a festive, holiday-themed dinner party discussion every December. When the children were young, the group instituted a separate venue for the dads to decorate gingerbread houses with the kids so the moms could enjoy a celebratory evening.
Traxler’s group also rallied to carry her through an unexpected and severe health crisis in 2014. Traxler says that in addition to analyzing books, the tightly-knit group has pored over almost every life issue that has crossed its path – raising kids, managing careers and adjusting to empty-nesting, among others.
“It is also a joy to gather together with intelligent women and discuss things besides raising kids or the latest drama at school,” she says. Traxler defined a subtle irony that undoubtedly contributes to the magnetism and sustainability of book clubs: “You actually learn so much more about a person by discussing books than you ever would just by regular conversation.”
Quality over quantity is a delicate balance, but crucial
And when I say quality, I don’t mean find someone with a vacation home in Napa. By quality, I mean dedicated: Dedicated to reading the book and having somewhat faithful attendance.
Most groups have about 10 members. Although there is a certain danger in setting strict membership limits, which can be perceived as being exclusive or clique-y, it can be cumbersome when a book club grows too big. People stop showing up when they feel like they won’t be missed.
Joan Pinto of Title Nine says, “Our meetings always include dinner, so we would tend to have a very compelling reason if we needed to miss.”
Numeric balance is key: One wants enough members so that there is vibrant discussion and a variety of opinions, but not so many that time runs out before everyone has had a chance to share, or members are inadvertently left off email chains because no one can accurately keep track of the complete roster.
Someone should assume the role of kindergarten teacher
All the clubs I visited operate a bit differently, but with the same premise. Some, like the Del Rey Dames, have a policy of “If you host, you lead.” Some determine the book and the date of the next meeting as they go along, while others stake out a schedule at the beginning of a new school year.
Some meet in the summer, most do not. Some have one member, usually a personality who gravitates to structure and organization, to lead the literary cavalry, as is the case with Ladies Night Out. In my own book club, the Read Hot Mamas, we typically depend on Dr. Sarah Rahman to channel our exuberant socializing into a semblance of a meaningful discussion. In her absence, our meetings unfold like a sophomore left in charge of a household for the weekend. But we try.
Some clubs enjoy additional outings and events besides group discussions. After reading The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Traxler’s club rented transportation so the group could visit all the San Francisco sites mentioned in the novel, and may or may not have imbibed at each stop.
Ladies Night Out has attended author readings together, taken a field trip to Palo Alto after reading Steve Jobs’ biography, collected and donated books for children, camped together and hiked a portion of the Pacific Coast Trail after reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed.
Sold! Where do I sign up?
Jump in with a visit to Orinda Books at 276 Village Square, or visit their website, orindabooks.com and click on “Book Clubs.” Owner Maria Roden provides a variety of options for the would-be book clubber, who can choose from the Second Wednesday Book Group, Maria’s Book Club, Random Readers, the World Affairs Book Club, the Sirs Book Club or join their Poetry Circle. Detailed information about meeting times and subject matter can be found on the website.
Orinda Books also offers a comfortable space that can be used by existing book groups. There is no charge to use the space, but the store requests the books be purchased there and meetings be logged on their calendar ahead of time.
All registered local book clubs receive a 10 percent discount. To register, call 925-254-7606 and let them know when you are making a book club selection.