Back row (from left): Mary, Virginia, Penny, and Rosie. Front row (from left): Ann Marie, Riley the dog, and Jane. Rosie’s floor-to-ceiling book shelves are complete with a library ladder!

In 1996, a group of Tri-Cities women did what thousands of other Americans do every year: they started a book club. At the time, I was building a family and working full-time, but reading is like breathing to me, so I jumped right in. It’s now 2024, I’m retired, my sons are grown, and our book club just finished our 300th book. The group has been fluid over the years, with some people dropping out and others dropping in; but fortunately, we’ve had a devoted core group. We now have nine active members, most of whom have been in the group at least ten years. Two of us have been in the group for the entire 29 years of its existence. 

The average lifespan of a book club is two and a half years. Why has our group lasted so long? I think the key is flexibility and being willing to try something new. 

We have adapted to changes. Meeting days are only semi-consistent, and change depending on schedules. Sometimes, babies attend meetings with their moms. When members move away, we invite new friends to join us. We also went through hard times together. When the pandemic prevented meeting in person, we relied on Zoom. When one of our original members passed away, we took up a collection and made a donation to the library in her honor.

Our method of selecting books encourages variety. For example, if it’s Susan’s turn to host next month, she gets to choose the book. She might offer a couple of options and ask people’s opinions, but the final choice is ultimately up to her. Because we all have different tastes in books, this method leads to a greater variety than if we tried to reach a consensus. We are willing to give almost any book a chance. Sometimes we love them, sometimes we hate them, but they’re always fun to discuss. Even if we don’t like a book, we usually appreciate it more after our discussion.

Like many people, when left to myself, I tend to pick books that are in comfortable, familiar genres. For me, that’s historical fiction, ‘cozy’ mysteries, and classic British authors like Dickens. Book club gets me to read things I wouldn’t choose for myself. I thought I didn’t like nonfiction, but when I read An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks, it blew my mind! Erik Larson’s book about the Lusitania had me on the edge of my seat… despite the fact that I obviously knew how it would end.

Not all 300 books have been acclaimed. Some were forgettable, others were memorably bad. (Maybe it’s better to be memorably bad than forgettable!) I still laugh when I think of a book we read years ago, where the author described a passionate sex scene in a pickup truck where the guy stripped off the woman’s jeans in a single graceful motion, despite the Sorrel boots she had on her feet. We had a good laugh over that one.

Some of our most satisfying discussions happen when there is a big difference of opinion. When we discussed Life of Pi by Yann Martel, we were split down the middle about which version of the story was real. Nobody was on the fence, and nobody changed her mind, but it was a spirited discussion that made us all think.

The nature of reading has changed since 1996, when we had a rule that all books had to be available in paperback to keep costs down. We’d order a bunch of copies from The Bookworm, who gave us a discount. Now most books are available in paper, e-books, and audiobooks, and we read whichever format we like. The Bookworm is no more, but Adventures Underground is a treasure. Of course, our public libraries remain dear to our hearts.

We have discovered that sometimes the book you read for the first time at 25 and the same book you re-read at 55 seem like different books! Rosie said she loved Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary when she was young, but neither she nor the rest of us loved it when we read it more recently. As Jane put it, “I have to admit, I cheered when Madame Bovary finally took the arsenic.”

There are powerful books that you’re glad you read, but you couldn’t bear to read again. Rosie says, “The one book that stands out to me and also broke my heart was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.”  It tells an unforgettable — and immensely painful — story.

A few of our favorite novels:

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • The Color of Water by James McBride
  • The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
  • The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Like many book clubs, our meetings include snacks and drinks. Some hosts get creative and play on an appropriate theme. For example:

  • For Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, we had emoji cookies.
  • For Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, we enjoyed glasses of port.
  • For A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter, we snacked on peanuts.
  • For Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, we had bloody marys and ladyfingers.

Jane speaks for many of us when she says, “I look forward to book club and feel lucky to participate with such a smart and lively group. Over the years we've lost a few of my favorite commentators; Mary S. and Dev gave awesome comments, particularly when they didn't like a book. I miss them.” 

Maybe over the next 100 books or so, I’ll work on filling those shoes.

Mary Hartman is a retired hydrogeologist and a lifelong reader.