Not Just For Little Old Ladies

I belong to a book club. We meet once a month at someone’s house, and we talk about a particular book.  I love it!  Everyone has her favorites, and my list of “want to read” books just keeps growing.  We usually do fiction, but once in a while we’ll do a memoir or a biography.

Our group is called “The Flippin’ Pages Book Club,” and the conversation always takes off. Young or old(er), everyone has something to say. That might be what I enjoy the most . . . hearing the thoughts of young women, what they read, what they want in a book . . .  and then hearing the thoughts of older women who’ve been reading for decades. 

We all like a good story, but there seem to be some generational preferences. Here’s an example. We read Catherine Marshall’s Christy. This is an old book now.  It came out in 1967 and my paperback copy is 558 pages of small print.  It’s lush. It’s descriptive. It’s rich in detail . . . or . . . It’s slow. It’s repetitious. It’s too long.  We all agreed it’s a great story, but we have definite preferences in writing style.

This month we read Till We Reach Home by Lynn Austin. This is the story of three sisters who emigrate from Sweden to the United States and Chicago in particular. This was a fun book for me personally, because “Bylin” is a Swedish name. Just like these sisters, my great grandparents came from Sweden and settled in Chicago. We had a good time talking about the story, particularly how the sisters related to each other. I love how a good story can open doors to personal exchanges.

All this got me thinking about the history of book clubs. They go back a lot further than Oprah. (I wish she’d do a western), and they have their roots in the upper classes where people had access to books and education.  Men started the trend in the eighteenth century, but women followed with their own groups. While sewing circles and similar activities gave women a chance to socialize, book clubs gave them a place to express opinions on the politics and events of their time.

As public education took root and literacy spread across America, book clubs grew in number and popularity. Access to more reading materials through public libraries gave readers everywhere the opportunity to enjoy a good book. For me, the most natural thing in the word is to talk about what I’ve been reading.  Book clubs give us that opportunity.

Has anyone else read Helen Hooven Santmyer’s The Ladies of the Club?  The story is set in a small Ohio town and is about the comings-and-goings of the members of a ladies book club from 1868 to 1932. It was first published in 1982 and republished in 1984 when it was selected for The Book of the Month Club.   It’s a huge book–over 1,100 pages–and it took Ms. Santmyer–a college professor–more than 50 years to write.  She was 88 years old and living in a retirement home when she sold.  Writers talk often about getting “the call,” that moment when you sell your first book.  Can you just see the look on Ms. Santmyer’s elderly face?  I wonder if she got up and did a jig?

The Outlaw’s Return is available now at Amazon.