Paula Walters, 73, a retired librarian in Wenatchee, WA, joined her book club six years ago to quench her thirst for reading – but got much more. One of the members of the club, which includes six women, has become her best friend. “We walk together and go to movies,” says Walters.
Books bring people together
That’s a recurring theme for those who belong to book clubs. A love of books and a thirst for knowledge draw them in, but often making lifelong friends—even those with opposite views of life—is the unexpected bonus that helps them to keep coming back.
“It’s not enough to stay up late reading a book,” says Davina Morgan-Witts, co-founder of BookBrowse.com, which she calls ”your guide to exceptional books.” Her site includes free newsletters and a twice-monthly online magazine for members ($39/year) and other features. “You have to learn something new. And that’s not often [accomplished with] the best sellers.” A book club, among its other draws, will introduce you to books you might never have picked for yourself, she says.
Morgan-Witts, of Saratoga, CA, is an encyclopedia of information about book clubs. Recently, she surveyed more than 8,400 book club members, publishing the results in two reports, “The Inner Lives of Book Clubs” and “Book Clubs in Lockdown,” the latter conducted during the pandemic. What she found:
- Most book clubs are classified as private (meeting in homes, restaurants or cafes), with only about a quarter public (often meeting in public libraries).
- Private group meetings generally last for two hours; public, 90 minutes. Most clubs’ members spend at least 40 minutes of that time discussing the book, though there is also often eating, drinking and socializing. She emphasizes, however, that it’s about the books. “The vast majority of people are there to discuss the book.” It is often through that discussion, however, that friendships bloom, she says.
- Groups average eight to 15 members. Some include retired only members, others women only or men only. The age ranges in some are very broad, in others narrow. Having a facilitator or discussion leader is common. They may pick the book and location—as well as figure out how to stifle over-sharers and encourage the shy to speak up.
- Pre-pandemic, in-person meetings were typically preferred to virtual. Some clubs are slowly returning to in-person gatherings after being forced to go virtual.
Book Club Members Talk
Malcolm (Mike) Spitalnick, 81, of Sebastian, Florida, a retired sales clerk, joined the Senior Planet book club when he noticed the book he was reading at the time was the one they would be discussing next. He also belongs to the book club of the Democratic Women’s Club of Indian River County. Usually outnumbered by women, he finds that ”we contribute to each other.” He says he provides a needed male perspective on some subjects, and welcomes the women’s views as well. Both clubs provide him much pleasure, says Spitalnick, who was 76 when he first started his book club habit.
Rebecca Bechhold, 68, is a semi-retired medical oncologist who was in her Cincinnati book club for 20 years before moving to Charleston, SC—and starting a new group, which includes seven members. She also writes a monthly book column for the local paper and her own book blog. “It exposed me to books I never would have picked,” she says of her memberships. “It’s also great to be in a group where all are such insightful readers.”
Jack Myers, 81, is a retired surgeon who lives in the Durham, NH area, and has rarely missed his all-men book club gatherings for the past 10 years. It meets every six weeks, he says, and usually six to eight show up. “I enjoy the contact with the other guys,” he says. Like the others, he says the book club choice is but one of many books he reads throughout the month. “We alternate fiction and non fiction, and the discussions are better with the fiction,” he finds. Like others, they shifted to virtual meetings, by Zoom, during the pandemic. They’re eager to return to in person but are holding off. “I don’t think our discussion has suffered too badly being virtual.”
Tips from the Experts
As you search for a book club to join, Morgan-Witts and others suggest:
- The love of books should be at the top of the list for joining, not socializing or foods served, she says.
- Ask up front what the club is like and what it expects of members.
- If it doesn’t feel right, ”leave before you get stuck,” Morgan-Witts says.
- Know that some clubs’ leader or facilitator may invite you for coffee before a meeting, Walters says—to see if you fit in.
Where to Find Book Clubs
Senior Planet’s book club, launched in March, 2020, meets monthly. It’s free and open to anyone who wants to join the group on Zoom, says Rebecca Altneu of Senior Planet. Typically, 25 to 45 people join in. The book is chosen by poll. “The poll includes books by authors of color and the choices are a combination of participant suggestions as well as ideas from staff,” including her, she says. Learn more here.
You can also check with your local library, community center, senior center or bookstore. On Meetup, and you’ll likely find many options. You can also find celebrity book clubs, such as Oprah’s and Reese Witherspoon’s.