Thursday, January 17, 2008

looks at books, as Ben would say

When we moved here, one of the first places our family went en masse was to the local public library to get library cards. Some of my previous posts have stressed the importance of libraries in our daily lives. It has been an ongoing struggle for me, however, to learn to appreciate the library here, and one of the many things I have found lacking is an established book discussion group.

That first summer we moved here, I approached the reference desk to ask the reference librarian for a list of book discussion groups. The dapper and hirsute little reference guy looked up from his reading and told me the library didn't have any book discussion groups, but that he thought the local independent book store might have one. He seemed somewhat surprised that I even thought the library would provide such a service.

I tried the group at the book store, and while I found the other ladies there friendly and welcoming, I found the book store owner who led the discussions to be somewhat distant and off-putting, and not too surprisingly, more interested in selling books than discussing them. In the event, the store soon closed, and I was left without a book discussion group. No big deal, you might think, but I had previously belonged to two groups for a number of years, and I missed the intellectual give and take. Plus, it was the best way I knew to meet people with interests similar to my own.

The groups I had belonged to were about as different from each other as they could be. One of them was at the public library where I worked, and was led by my friend and supervisor, Ruth, the Reader's Advisor. The group was open to the public and met monthly throughout the school year. The group members were a mixed bag, mostly women, mostly middle-aged, but ranging in age from early twenties to quite elderly. The group dynamics were those familiar to everyone who has every participated in discussions of this kind.

A group of people is a group of individuals, after all, and we had every type: the woman who attended every session and read every book, but never spoke a word; the woman who thought she was clever, but was sly instead, and tried to take over every discussion with recollections of her life; the radical who was no longer young, but espoused the causes of her youth, and found links to them in every book we read. We had the elderly, emaciated woman who was wealthy and quite prominent in our small town. She couldn't remember if she had read the book, but ate the cookies provided like she hadn't eaten all week, then promptly fell asleep. We had the young mothers who brought their restless children to the group, and promised the kids would read quietly, although they never did.

The library staff members took turns leading the discussions, which kept things fresh and interesting. It was an adventure and a pleasure to lead the group, but I learned not to lead discussions about my favorite books because I just took it too personally if everyone didn't love the book as much as I did. I learned to ask a question and wait patiently for an answer, even though my instinct was to hurry on to the next thing. I learned that in a group of that kind, the discussion leader needed to lead with a firm hand; and that the people who were most offensive were also the most difficult to offend so subtlety was not the answer. Good life lessons, all.

My other discussion group was led by Ruth, as well, but it was a private group, with the members hand-picked from among our co-workers at the library and close friends of Ruth's. We were all about the same age - I would say maybe ten years separated the oldest member of the group from the youngest. We met in each other's homes every six weeks. There were probably eight to ten of us in the group at any given time, and we grew to know each other quite initmately. Our December discussions were held at the country club over a Christmas dinner, and our July discussions always included a picnic or a barbecue. It was hard to leave this group of friends when we moved. Harder still when I realized that there would be no replacement group in my new home town. And so it has been - until last week when an article in the local newspaper caught my eye.

To be continued...

1 comment:

Ben said...

Perhaps you could... continue?

For example, have you done anything lately that might come under the heading of "Book Discussion Groups", perchance?