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April 24, 2008

Dual Book Club Gatherings

Posted by carol
Four years ago guest blogger Liz Engl's book club met with another group to compare notes, and here she tells us how their December get-together became an annual tradition...and why.

Living on an island in the middle of the Niagara River in Western New York, midway between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, provides residents with a unique, somewhat secluded, environment --- the perfect spot for book clubs to thrive.

The one I belong to --- an offshoot of a monthly luncheon group of women new to the Island --- has flourished for more than 15 years. Little did I know when I agreed to host the first meeting what I was signing up for. Years later I'm still preparing the book notes, assigning the hostesses, sending out meeting notices and reminders, and forwarding dozens of internet newsletters from publishers, bookstores and other book-related sites to members weekly.

One of the members of our book club met a friend in one of the other island groups --- a more homogenous tribe of moms with school-age children --- who reported their group had intermittent problems with attendance and keeping on topic. After comparing notes, they agreed improvements might follow a joint meeting with our group to compare how we handle our get-togethers. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to discover how the other group handled these same tasks.

The other group, who had only been meeting for a few years, deferred to ours to settle the arrangements. We were fortunate to have a member in our group with a home large enough to accommodate both groups comfortably for our joint meeting, and she volunteered to be the hostess. The title we chose, Nancy Reisman's The First Desire, is set in our area so it would be of interest to both groups. Because we provided the location and the book, the other group graciously agreed to bring the refreshments.

We chose the month of December to hold the meeting. December had always been a problem month for attendance. Everyone was getting ready for the holidays and never seemed to get around to reading the book we had chosen. But the thought of getting together with new people and hearing new perspectives about a book got everyone excited, and they immediately planned to attend.

Almost more important than our discussion about that night's title was the chance to share the characteristics of each group: How often do you meet? Who hosts the meetings? Do you serve refreshments? Do you read different genres? Who chooses your titles? Do you choose books several months ahead of schedule? Do you have a moderator? Do you use prepared notes? If so, does someone in the group compose them or do you use notes available on the Internet? How do you keep your group on topic? What are the best books you have read in the past year? What are the worst?

Although we shared similarities (we both meet monthly, rotate hostesses, generally read fiction and serve appetizers and desserts), there were some differences. Having a moderator (or facilitator) was one of them. Prepared, printed book notes for each member was another (we used both; they used neither). Is that what made our older group more successful? The members of my group thought so. But we all could agree that the choice of a good book was crucial. It could make or break a meeting. And a long string of bad choices could endanger the interest of all group members.

The joint meeting was a great success. We all enjoyed discussing the book and the area we call home. We agreed it should become an annual event.

Since that first December meeting four years ago, we have kept our pledge and met every year with the same enthusiasm and camaraderie that we experienced at our first meeting. This year we decided to branch out to an off-Island locale for a more festive setting for our meeting. We were able to find a restaurant that was willing to host just our group for the evening. During our "socializing" time, we compared book lists of the past year to get ideas for the coming one. We noted how the other group had begun doing some things "our" way, and we had also put some of their advice to use.

The "secretary" of the other group now keeps in touch with me by e-mail. Together we helped our Island librarian plan a meeting of all Island book groups to discuss To Kill a Mockingbird in conjunction with the NEA's Big Read in February. Despite a snow storm, that was a success as well. All the groups that participated have agreed to meet at the Library again in October for the next Big Read event. Joint meetings are catching on!

---Liz Engl