Staff Q&A/A friend lends Susan Anthony a book to read, and the next thing you know, she’s got a club going
“I went on the web and found ‘Book Clubs for Dummies.’”
TV host Kelly Ripa has a book club for people looking for a good beach read. “Good Morning America” features book clubs around the nation sharing their taste for the latest in the “self-help” genre. “Today” actually invites authors to recommend other authors. Even Oprah brought back her club and is recommending John Steinbeck.
All over campus, in offices and labs, books are being passed from hand to hand. Hardcover. Paperback. Fiction. Non-fiction. Poetry. “You’ve got to read this. I loved it.”
There isn’t any doubt that there are a lot of readers at Penn, but most of us don’t have a dynamo like Susan Anthony to organize our selections, generate good questions, arrange a get-together with like-minded fellows and let the conversation flow. Her book club, begun two years ago with several of her colleagues in Wharton External Affairs, has grown to include 20 participants and its own web site.
Q. How did you start the book club?
A. The book club started as a fluke. My girlfriend in Chicago would always talk about her book group, and I always threatened to join, but it didn’t make sense to go to Chicago once a month. There were a couple of us in the office that would pass around a book—I read this—you should read this. So I called my friend and asked her how they started their group. She gave me all the particulars and then I went on the web and found “Book Clubs for Dummies.”
Q. How does it work?
A. New members are invited to participate in our web site—it is not a public site—we use Yahoo! Groups. I maintain the links and keep up the postings. You go to files and you find the hosting schedule, our reading selections and our famous recipes list. When you post one message it goes out to everybody. That’s how we communicate so we don’t have to send one mass e-mail. Once a month on a Saturday, we meet. That is where we vote on the selections we are going to read in the future. We meet at the designated hostess’s house—she is responsible for posting questions and leading the discussion as well as setting the theme and preparing the main dish. It is potluck. Everyone signs up on the web site with what they are bringing. We have signature dishes and signature beverages.
Q. When did you start it?
A. We’ve read 25 books—and we meet once a month—so it was shortly after I arrived here.
Q. Is everyone from Penn?
A. It started with people at Penn. We had friends and someone would say, I know someone who really loves to read, so we’ve grown that way.
Q. What’s the next book?
A. “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham. I had seen the movie. I thought it was three women and a man who were depressed about being depressed. But we are a democratic organization and we vote on selections. I didn’t vote for it. That’s why the theme for the next meeting is comfort food because these people [in the novel] need a lot of comfort. Before we were officially organized, we read Mary Monroe’s “God Don’t Like Ugly.” The first book we read was “Bridget Jones’ Diary.” We thought it was a little fluffy. There wasn’t much to discuss.
Q. Can you skip the book and just see the movie?
A. Actually, “Bridget Jones” came out after we read it, but finishing the book is always an issue.
Q. What is the process for choosing the next book?
A. We have a list of 25 selections that is our working list. On our current list are: “Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman,” “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day,” and “Good In Bed” among other titles. Everyone gets to vote. You have two selections. It requires you visiting the web site before we have the meeting and then we vote. In October we are reading “Like Water for Chocolate,” in November “The Nanny Diaries” and in December “The Poisonwood Bible.” After that, I am going to institute polling so we won’t have to do voting in the same way we have in the past. It will require everyone to be more proactive in their selections.
Q. What was the best book you’ve read?
“The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant. Fabulous. It is about one small passage in the Bible and a whole story that centers around it. It evoked hours of conversation. We ate entirely too much. We drank entirely too much. Book club is not one hour. We recommend that you don’t make any plans for after book club. It could be a one-hour meeting or a four-hour meeting.
We also have field trips. After we read “White Oleander” [by Janet Fitch], which was one of the most well-written books I’ve read, we went to see the movie. Her descriptions of people and her characterizations of them—when you saw the character in the movie, it was uncanny. It was as though the book had been based on that person. It was wonderful. We’ve also gone to book signings and to readings.
Originally published on October 2, 2003