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December 18, 2009

Book Club Longevity: The Traveling Band of Readers

Posted by webmaster
What makes a reading group stay together for an incredible two decades, or longer? Last month we introduced five book clubs that have marked the 20-year milestone.

Today we talk with Gillian Jones about her Southern California reading group --- what has kept them meeting for so many years, how their camaraderie extends beyond their book club boundaries, how they got their intriguing name and much more. "Our group is an important part of my life," says Gillian. "I love the opportunity to read and share thoughts on the wide variety of books that we read."

Previous Book Club Longevity Interviews:
V&C (Vulture and Culture)
Farmington Woods Book Group
Thursday Night Book Club
The Bookers
Reading in Kansas How long has your book club been meeting, and how was it formed?

Gillian Jones:
Our particular book group has been in existence for almost 20 years. I have been a member for the past twelve years. We are a group of about 15 women with an original connection of the Cajon Valley School district, near San Diego, where many of us worked in various capacities, from teachers to office managers to administrators. Since then our group has grown to include other assorted friends and connections. Several of our members are of the core group of originators. We meet monthly for wine, pizza, salad, dessert and book discussion.

Over the years we have read a wide variety of books of all genres. Sometimes one book leads us to another: same author, same topic, same genre etc. We have met and talked with authors, in person and via phone conference. We have traveled to Italy and France together, holding our monthly meetings on the road and choosing books set in countries we visit. Hence our name: The Traveling Band of Readers.

Each member chooses a book in turn for reading and discussion. Oftentimes these are choices we might not personally have considered. Discussions have been rousing and stimulating; opinions divided; personal stories inspired by our reading have been shared.

RGG: To what do you attribute the longevity of your book club?

GJ: I think our longevity as a group attests to our collective love of reading and admiration and respect for writing and writers. To discuss the diverse selection of books we read is something we all cherish and look forward to each month. We enjoy each other's company, and often socialize, hike, travel, etc outside book group.

RGG: What advice do you have for other groups who would like to make it to the 20-year mark?

My advice to other groups would be to maintain a regular meeting schedule. Set up a web based calendar and site for members to access. Someone should, ideally, be in charge of maintaining group communications and an ongoing catalog of books chosen. Devise a format and etiquette for the meetings: for example, take turns hosting the meeting and choosing the book of the month; the current hostess begins the discussion by explaining her reasons for choosing the book; then all members take turns sharing opinions and comments. Have refreshments: keep the menu simple and consistent, e.g. pizza, salad, wine, dessert. Socialize first and then move on to the book discussion. Stay on task and restrict the meeting to a couple of hours.

RGG: Tell us about a memorable book discussion or meeting.

Although there have been many memorable book discussions in our group, one that made a particularly strong impact on me was when Judy Bernstein, the co-author of They Poured Fire On Us from the Sky, attended our group's meeting and talked about her experience writing the book with three young Sudanese refugees. She brought maps and video clips to explain the evolution of the current political situation in the Sudan; the unbelievably harrowing experiences these young men had endured; how she had become their sponsor through her involvement in an international aid organization when they arrived in San Diego; and how she had encouraged and helped them to write their very moving, personal saga.

After the meeting, Judy donated books and videotaped background information to me for my students which have since become a powerful source of intense interest and a revelation to my 8th graders: arousing their empathy, provoking discussion and instilling awareness of the enormity of the challenges these young refugees have faced; besides also engendering an increased appreciation for the advantages and opportunities which education and life in America can afford. In addition, many group members donated their books for my classroom, as they often do, to support my students by encouraging an interest in meaningful reading experiences.

As is typical of our book group experiences, this led several weeks later to some of us attending a recital of Shakespearean sonnets at the San Diego Old Globe theatre where Alephonsion Deng, one of the Sudanese Lost Boys and one of the authors of the book, had been invited to give a performance of two sonnets to the accompaniment of a traditional Sudanese instrument. Afterwards, we were privileged to talk with him about the book and learn more about his incredible journey.

This is just one of many examples of how our book selections often continue to resonate in our lives far beyond the monthly meetings.