It all began with “Fanny,” by Erica Jong, the fictional diary of a free-thinking girl in 18th century England.
That was the novel a small group of colleagues working at the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center decided would kick off what they hoped would become a regular monthly meeting to discuss literature over lunch. That was back in 1982. Since then, this group of avid readers has met at noon on the third Tuesday of each month without fail.
Last month they celebrated their 30th anniversary as a book club the same way they celebrated their 20th and their 10th—with a potluck lunch and a fancy cake. Plus, of course, a discussion of the book of the month: “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” by Helen Simonson, the tale of a buttoned-up widower in 21st century England who falls for a charming Pakistani neighbor.
Lee Pugh, who retired from Penn last July, is one of the founders of the group. She and co-founder Julie Vick, a senior associate director in Career Services, say through the years they have strived to keep the book club informal, wide-reaching, and open to anybody on campus.
To that end, each member takes a turn selecting what book the group will read, and there are no rules, except that the selections must be available in paperback, and should be at least one step above pulp fiction. “We work through the list of about 12 regular members, alphabetical by first name,” says Amey Hutchins, who works in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Over the decades, the group has read everything from classics such as “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” by Thomas Hardy (February, 1987) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (August, 2010), to biographies of Isak Dinesen (July, 1986) and Malcolm X (June, 1986). They have even ventured into chick-lit with “In Her Shoes,” by Jennifer Weiner (November, 2005). Officially, the group has about 50 members who receive an email informing them of the book of the month. But usually about a dozen regulars attend the lunchtime gatherings.
At the group’s most recent meeting at the Meyerson conference room in Van Pelt, they began the session by discussing a longtime member who is currently battling a serious illness. They’d chipped in on sending her some flowers and received a note of thanks. Then, they got down to business, tackling “The Tiger’s Wife,” by Téa Obreht, a challenging novel filled with Balkan politics, fables, and allegories. Most members had copies of the novel in front of them. Two toted electronic readers.
“I thought the stories in the book were fantastic. I couldn’t put it down,” said Valerie Benson, who retired from PennDesign two years ago but comes back to campus each month to participate in the book group.
“Well,” answered another member who asked not to be named, “I had a hard time staying focused. I didn’t finish it.”
Over their brown-bag lunches, the group discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the main characters, the foreign setting of the novel, and the impressive writing skill of the young author. Their conversations tend to stay focused because the meeting lasts precisely 60 minutes. But that doesn’t mean the club members haven’t made time to become friends. They’ve shared good news such as their children’s weddings with one another, and sad times such as the death of two members in past years.
“I’ve worked at Penn for 20 years, and I wish I’d joined the group sooner,” says Evalyn Gelhaus, who works in the Penn Libraries Information Processing Center. “I thought it was only for professionals and I am a paraprofessional. But it’s for anybody who wants to come, and I’m glad I did.”
The group will meet again on March 20 at noon, in the Class of ’55 conference room on the second floor of Van Pelt. The book up for discussion is “Petals of Blood” by Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
“It may be a more difficult read than usual,” says Pugh. “But I think we should accept the challenge.”
Newcomers, she says, are always welcome. Those who are interested in joining should email Amey Hutchins at AmeyH@pobox.upenn.edu.
Originally published on March 15, 2012