By Ron Hayes
Don’t believe everything you read about how nobody reads anymore.
Those good old-fashioned book lovers are still out there, hungry for intelligent novels, literate histories, provocative biographies, and eager to share their delight — or disappoinment — in the latest feast.
From South Palm Beach to Delray, book clubs are thriving on the coast.
In South Palm Beach, the town’s book discussion group, which began as a seasonal club six years ago, now meets year-round.
“The only dues are, you’ve got to speak up,” says Penny Davidson, the group’s discussion leader. “But not while somebody else is talking.”
In February, they read Evening Class, by the Irish novelist Maeve Binchy. This month, it’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie.
“At every meeting, somebody says, ‘I hated this book, but now I hear what you’ve got to say, I understand more why it was written,’ ” Davidson says.
One book that’s proved a surprise bestseller and book club favorite this year is The Help, novelist Kathryn Stockett’s tale of black domestic workers and the white women who hire them in 1960s Mississippi.
“The morning after I finished it, I came downstairs and it was like all my friends had moved away,” one fan said. But then she gathered with a dozen real friends at the Manalapan Library Book Club to discuss the book.
“We’re very informal,” says discussion leader John Tegano. “You can have read the book or not. If you like the meeting you can come back.”
Ocean Ridge readers also read The Help.
“It’s the only book everybody’s liked,” says club leader John Wootton.
The book club strives to find quality fiction, Wootton says, but it’s not above slumming once a while. Not long ago, they tackled Twilight, from Stephanie Meyer’s hugely successful vampire series.
“We said, Let’s read this as a sociological phenomenon,” explains Wootton, “and it turned out to be fascinating. We all thought it was dreadfully written, but it got us talking to children and teenagers and asking ‘What do you see in this?’ ”
Usually, the club favors more literary works, such as Olive Kitteridge, last year’s Pulitzer-prize winner, or John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath.
“The only things we try to stay away from are strong religious themes, and we don’t want to get into political discussions,” Wootton says.
And then there’s … sex!
After all, one reader’s sensuality is another’s smut.
“Some ladies in our group didn’t finish one book or another because it was full of dirty words,” concedes Penny Davidson of South Palm Beach, “If I’ve chosen something that goes against the grain, they won’t vote for it — or they won’t come — but that’s life.”
Ask the club leaders, and all concede that their groups are predominantly, if not overwhelmingly, female.
In 2002, Susan Hurlburt started an informal book club with 10 women friends.
“I just invited some friends I knew were literate, and I was basically the dictator. I picked the books,” she recalls.
Seven years later, the club is still active, but without a dictator. Nowadays, they work from a list of genres — memoirs, prize-winners, plays, nonfiction — and the member who chooses the book hosts a meeting in her home. They are not currently accepting new members.
“We’re 10 women with 10 different views of life,” says Hurlburt, “and we’ve only chosen one book that was a dog.”
The book? Be Cool, by Elmore Leonard.
“Yes, the book clubs tend to be invariably women,” says Steve Leveen, the founder of the Levenger book accessory stores and author of The Little Guide To Your Well-Read Life. “I got a little envious that women were having all these great meetings, so I started a book club for men only.
The result is The Mules, a Delray Beach discussion group inspired by a couplet from poet Ogden Nash: In the land of the mules, there are no rules.
While the women read Maeve Binchy or The Help, Leveen and his fellow Mules favor more manly fare, such as Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.
“I made the mistake once of inviting some women to our meeting,” Leveen says, “and frankly, the level of discussion was raised to such a high level it was intimidating and the men made me promise I wouldn’t do it again.”
AREA BOOK CLUBS
South Palm Beach
Meets in town hall at 10:15 a.m. on he third Tuesday of each month. For information, call Penny Davidson at (561) 547-9374.
Meets in the J. Turner Moore Library at 3 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month. For information, call the library at (561) 588-7577.
Meets at town hall at 5:445 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. For information, call John Wootton at (561) 369-3369.
The Mules, a book discussion group for men only, meets monthly at the Boheme Bistro. For information, call Steve Leveen at (561) 716-0793.