This article was originally published in the June 2017 Princeton Echo.
Three years ago Sheila Mahoney and Gordon Douglas asked residents of our little Princeton townhouse complex if they would like to form a couples book club. Being rather antisocial I demurred, but my husband, Toby, convinced me to join. Nine others have also signed up. It has been, I now admit, not only an interesting but also a worthwhile experience.
Our group is now one of a plethora of book clubs in the Princeton area. And no two, I believe, are the same. Ours certainly does not meet any standard that I have come across. But there is one thing that all the private book clubs have in common: They are constrained in size by personal acquaintance, time commitment, and the size of the meeting venue. As a result you really do need to know someone to join one.
This can lead to some hurt feelings. Back in 2005 the Wall Street Journal ran a feature story on book clubs that noted “Nearly every city has one: the book club you can’t get into. Much like clubs that screen members for social connections and Ivy League degrees, they require applicant interviews, references, and take pride in their rejection rate.” It came as somewhat of a shock that the Journal’s list of clubs with “snub appeal” included one in Princeton that “requires three letters of recommendation before candidates can even get on the waiting list.”
To many, that description hurt. The clubs in Princeton are exclusive only in that members know each other and they can only admit as many as their meeting venue will hold. In a sense, my little book club is also exclusive in that we too share a commonality as neighbors and can only fit a limited number in our living rooms.
So does this mean you have to know someone and have a reasonably sized meeting space to join a book club? Not so. Google “book clubs in Princeton” and you’ll find a wide variety of ways to participate in a book club. And these require no time commitment on your part nor even the requirement to read a chosen book.
Following is an informal guide to some of the private and public book clubs now flourishing in Princeton:
At the first organizational meeting of our club — we have yet to give it a name — we decided that getting together every six weeks during the academic year would be more than enough. Most book clubs meet at least monthly. We also chose a rather democratic format. Each couple would take turns preparing and passing out written descriptions of three or four proposed books. Since we have different backgrounds — scientists, teachers, sociologists, financial advisers — the selections are quite varied.
We take the write-ups home and e-mail our choice to Sheila, who then announces the selection for the next meeting. The proposers describe the author and any further background to the book at that meeting and then the discussion ensues. The host at that meeting is responsible for suggesting books for the next gathering.
Sometimes the written descriptions are so interesting that Toby and I will read more than one proposed book. And, let’s be honest, sometimes we don’t want to read any of the choices … but we do.
Our discussions, along with everything else associated with our book club, are rather loose. We each take a turn in making a point. When the group read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, Toby’s only comment was, “I had to listen to Patricia angrily rant the whole time she read it.”
The discussion on Joseph Ellis’s The Quartet, about the four key players in ensuring passage of our Constitution, quickly ebbed from the book to politics today. We talked about how the basics laid down at the time — a provision that popular vote would not necessarily translate to winning and that not all people were eligible to vote — have been forgotten by the public in recent heated primaries and presidential elections.
We are definitely different from book clubs that were first formed in our country two centuries ago. In those days, women gathered in the mornings to discuss literature while coffee or tea was served. Our coed meetings start at 5:30 and hors d’oeuvres, wine, beer, or soft drinks pep us before discussions. Since we include vegans, vegetarians, and gluten free members, choosing the refreshments is often more difficult than writing up proposed books to read.
From the beginning, we were in favor of trying different formats. Last fall, Sheila and Gordon proposed reading The Merchant of Venice and then assigning passages to be orated by members. Our group is so eclectic that we have an Irishman and a Texan in our midst. To have each read the same Shylock passage with their different but melodic accents was a special treat.
The bottom line — so true, I believe, for all who participate in book clubs — is that Toby and I have definitely enriched our reading experience. Though we have long been acquainted with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, we never would have read it without the impetus of our club. And we have been introduced to books we would never have found on our own, including Bryan Stevenson’s powerful description of legally representing poor people in Just Mercy, which is the selection for our next meeting.
Though we may be the newest Princeton book club, Deep Think could well be the oldest. This club was formed over half a century ago and as long time member Claire Jacobus says, “We took time off from cleaning baby bottles to obtaining doses of intellectual stimulation.”
And while my book club had an oral reading at one gathering, Deep Think came into being solely for the beauty of reading books aloud. “The prose takes over,” Jacobus explains. “We don’t stop to discuss the book. Rather we enjoy the sheer power of the words and the meaning generated by the author.”
At the beginning, recitations were scheduled every other week; today about once a month. Reading a chosen book is not a requirement but oral presentation of selected passages must be done with emotion and passion. Since its inception, members have taken turns in being responsible for the passages to be read at meetings; the chosen book, with selections highlighted, is handed from one person to another. As the years went by, reading glasses began to be passed around; now, if the reader has not obtained contact lenses, glasses are automatically worn before recitation begins.
Often, there would be a theme for a year and among the choices were Russian writers, African writers, and Saint Paul’s letters. The members were so taken with the lyrical quality of Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra that they recited the entire book, the only publication to get such treatment. Summer meetings are always devoted to poetry.
Membership can flow in a book club, especially in this rather transient town. Deep Think does not reflect this. Rather, down through the decades the members have shared their life cycles, forming a group with tight bonds. Not surprisingly, the numbers have diminished over time, with about 10 active now.
The Reading Group
Another old time Princeton book club, the Reading Group may also be the most unusual. In its meetings, members neither discuss books nor read them out loud. Rather, this group listens to lectures by the author of a chosen book or by a noted scholar on the book’s subject.
The Reading Group traces its origin to a group of mothers with young children who would get together during the day for interesting and stimulating conversations. After one such informal gathering, it was suggested that the discussions be centered solely on books.
That idea met with widespread acceptance. Friends invited friends and in May, 1971, about 40 women attended the first meeting. The group’s first book: Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.
The group reconvened in the fall to discuss Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. With such a large group, individual contributions to discussions became impossible. Rather, a new format was introduced: the group would vote on a book to read and then either the author of the book (remember, this is Princeton, where authors are the proverbial dime a dozen) or a scholar would deliver a 45-minute lecture. A short, 15-minute question and answer period would follow, and the meeting would then come to a close so everyone could get home before school let out.
Time has not changed the format but it has slightly changed the composition of the Reading Group. Most members no longer have to hurry home to meet children, although some dash off to their office or to meet grandchildren. Members pay an annual fee of around $65 to enable the group to pay a small honorarium to the authors and to rent space at the Center of Theological Inquiry. It meets there the first Thursday of each month from October to June to listen to the lectures. Because the room can comfortably hold no more than 55, membership is restricted to that number.
And, yes, the Reading Group was the Princeton club cited in the Wall Street Journal article for “snub appeal.” It technically requires only one letter of recommendation, but it also asks for two “seconding” letters. There is often a waiting list, but not always. The group does not drum up publicity for itself.
“The lectures help you to understand how to read a book,” said one member, who preferred not to have her name used. Another added, “I leave exhilarated after each meeting.” Speakers have ranged from university presidents to U.S. ambassadors, from Pulitzer Prize winners to MacArthur Fellows.
Hedge fund manager and vociferous Vladimir Putin critic Bill Browder spoke at a recent meeting on his book Red Notice. “We had to pass through security for that one,” a member reported. “That was rather interesting.”
Other public clubs
The listings include a Princeton Vegan Book and Movie Discussion Club with 205 members and a Geek Mommies of Princeton club with 116 members.
The most intriguing, to me, is the One Drink Minimum Book Club of Princeton. Founded in 2008, this club boasts more than 1,300 readers and anyone can join. The gatherings — on a Monday and a Wednesday of each month — are limited to 15 people, and your name will be added to a waiting list if all the slots are filled. All the sign-ups are handled online.
Despite its name, no one needs to buy a drink of any kind, and certainly not an alcoholic one. But the organizers hope that each participant will buy something as a show of appreciation for the restaurant. (TGI Friday’s at Marketfair on Route 1 is a favorite destination because the staff cheerfully maintains separate checks for each of the participants.) The book selections are posted far in advance on the website and the selections are also available in area libraries.
The gatherings tend to be a mix of regulars and newcomers, says Gina Turner, who has participated in the group since its earliest days. Participants range in age from 20-somethings to retirement age. “Because there’s such an interesting mix we sometimes have people who know nothing about the subject of the book and others who know a lot,” she says.
The reading lists include a mix of fiction and nonfiction, as well as some unexpected choices. Turner, a psychology professor at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania, says the group tried a graphic novel — The Watchman — last year and was so impressed by its literary merit that it added another one this year, Persepolos. This year’s list has also included The Happiness Hypothesis, Kindred, and The Boys in the Boat.
The One Drink Minimum club, with its open and diverse membership ranks, is a good indicator that books are still an important part of the cultural landscape. “People are reading in many different ways now,” says Turner, who finds herself turning the pages both physically and online, as well as listening to audio books on her long commute to her teaching job. One of her friends in the book club just turned 30, and — Turner says with a note of satisfaction in her voice — “she’s a huge reader.”
The true center for book clubs here, however, is our Princeton Public Library. The library offers books clubs for kids, teens, and adults. These are open to all who are free to attend. Librarians choose the books for each group and facilitate the ensuing discussions.
To learn more about these clubs, go to the library’s website. Click on “calendar” on the right side and then click on “find it.” Under that you will see separate listings for each audience. Under adults, for example, there are three different books clubs: Black Voices, Contemporary Fiction, and Mystery Book Group. The meeting dates and chosen books are presented for each category.
Librarian Kristin Friberg has led the Contemporary Fiction group for 12 years and reports between 14 to 21 readers attend a session, which lasts 60 to 90 minutes. “It has been wonderful,” she says, “to see the relationships that have developed over the years. The discussions are always interesting and stimulating. Often people go out to lunch to continue their discussions.”
In addition to offering book clubs, the library also services about 20 independent book groups. These groups notify the library of their choices for the coming year and the library orders about five copies of each book for its collection. There is a special section on the first floor of the library devoted to book club selections, and it is among the most popular areas in the building.
One retired librarian, a voracious reader, heavily relies on the book club choices for new reading material. “They’ve all been vetted,” she says, “and save me time in researching new titles.”
Of course, she is an avid reader with a wide range of interests. If this describes you and you have neither the time nor the inclination to join a group, the library’s book club section is the place for you. If, however, you need a prod to read material you would never otherwise go near, you will be rewarded, as I have been, by joining one of the many book clubs that our rich, diverse, intellectual community offers.