Oprah Winfrey may have popularized books and book discussions for everyone, but people were talking about books in libraries long before the talk-show maven made headlines. And while the celebrity book champion has moved on, there remains no dearth of ways and places to discuss books--particularly at the community library.
Unsurprisingly, many among Oprah's talk-show peers have come forward to take her place; among the new TV book-club entrants are "Reading with Ripa" on Live with Regis and Kelly and "Read This" on Good Morning America. Today, in an attempt to distinguish itself in this field, is inviting famous authors to select and recommend a book; the program kicked off in June with John Grisham picking The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter.
While all the media hype has raised the visibility of reading for pleasure, libraries remain the bastions of book-discussion programs, services, and clubs. More than 60% of public libraries surveyed in a 1998 study (Cultural Programs for Adults in Public Libraries: A Survey Report, ALA/PPO, 1999) said they were hosting book-discussion programs. Library notable Margaret E. Monroe spearheaded book discussions in the New York Public Library in the 1940s, and in the 1950s she joined ALA's American Heritage Project, a national program of book and film discussions of American democratic issues. In fact, book clubs per se date back before the advent of public libraries (although members were involved in group purchase more than in discussion).
A touch of humanities
Why are people interested in discussing books with one another in the first place? If the group is self-initiated among friends, many report that it deepens the intimacies of the friendships, while giving members the opportunity to explore and have fun together. For series initiated by and in libraries among relative strangers, it provides a way to get to know neighbors, discuss ideas relevant to life in the community, and to simply learn more from one another than possible by reading a book alone in a vacuum.
Perhaps the most widely recognized and the most significant book program promulgated by the American Library Association is "Let's Talk About It."
In its third decade, the program sprang from a group of friends in a small Vermont town who met, regularly in the 1970s to discuss books. The Vermont Humanities Council was the first organization to promote and support that model; ALA built on that model in the 1980s. The National Endowment for the Humanities invested $900,000 in developing the first ALA "Let's Talk About It" program (AL, Dec. 1983, p. 696-698), and NEH has since awarded additional grants, most recently in 1998. Libraries in 30 states presented "Let's Talk About It" series throughout the 1980s, and the programs have engaged an estimated 4 million people in the last two decades.
"Let's Talk About It" was created with the idea that people are interested in delving into themes in books that relate to their lives, and that a humanities scholar could significantly add to the discussion by injecting background information and skilled facilitation.
In a typical series, "Let's Talk About It" participants read five books related to a single humanities theme and discuss them in a group led by a humanities scholar who acts as facilitator, provider of background, and overall humanities link between the book and reader.
"Let's Talk About It" has, since the late 1980s, been promoted primarily by state humanities councils, which have produced regional themes and offered libraries grants to pay local scholars to present and facilitate the programs. Often the state humanities councils provide publicity and program materials such as printed brochures that highlight the theme in each of the books to be discussed, either for the scholar-leader or for participants to read on their own as background. Some councils also track the libraries in the state that have used various themes and may have sets of books to loan. Most can help libraries locate an appropriate scholar.
Some view the "Let's Talk About It" model as the Cadillac of book-discussion series. Nevertheless, many libraries offer equally successful models that are quite different, simpler, or more flexible. These alternate library book clubs offer variations on themes, books and other media, audience composition, group leadership, and meeting frequency.
Among the variety offered by libraries are:
* Ongoing groups or clubs that meet according to the participants' demographics (moms of toddlers, seniors, teens, ethnicities) or the type of material being read (science fiction, mystery, romance, nonfiction, poetry, history). These groups may meet monthly, three times a year, or at other intervals, and are currently the most numerous.
* Thematic or topical series, in the style of "Let's Talk About It," with or without a scholar-leader or other facilitator.
* One-time discussion of works by visiting authors prior to their appearances.
* Radio call-in, such as that on ALA's "StoryLines America" regional literature programs on public radio.
* Discussion and listening series, combined with filmed or audiotaped programs, such as ALA's "Poets in Person" readings, produced by the Modern Poetry Association.
* Adjuncts to other cultural programs, such as discussion of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in conjunction with the current ALA traveling exhibition "Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature" (AL, Dec. 2001, p. 8-10).
One book at a time
Currently, the major trend in book discussion is the "One City, One Book" model. Implemented from Seattle to Chicago to Greensboro, North Carolina, and elsewhere, this model creates a sense of civic community and dialogue in towns large and small.
The library, usually as the leader of a cooperative of community organizations and cultural institutions, promotes the reading of a single title (e.g., Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter in Seattle, Willa Cather's My Antonia in Chicago, Ernest Gaines's A Lesson before Dying in Greensboro) by all members of the community. The common text provides the starting place from which discussion springs in many settings. People on city buses may wear buttons proclaiming, "I'm reading [book title]," which encourages book-loving strangers to strike up conversations with one another. Libraries and other venues host discussions, lectures, and other related programs, and advertise the book citywide. Typically the sponsoring organization invites the author to come and speak, and otherwise engage with the community as a culmination of the program, with radio interviews, receptions, readings, and other appearances.
As the trend expands, entire regions and states are considering this model.
Whatever the programming model, librarians are in the ideal--and enviable-- position to recommend and initiate discussion of worthy books, and libraries offer the central space for community dialogue, learning, and simple enjoyment of good reading.
RELATED ARTICLE: RESOURCES FOR BOOK DISCUSSION
* ALA's "Let's Talk About It" (www.ala.org/publicprograms/letstalk/index.html) This site highlights history, theme materials available, and links to other sites.
* State Humanities Councils (www.neh.gov/whoweare/statecouncils.html) State councils are sources for grants, scholar recommendations, referrals, materials, and advice.
* ALA PPO Book Discussion Programs (www.ala.org/publicprograms/bookdisc/) This site lists other programs and opportunities sponsored by the Public Programs Office.
* Coming soon: "One Book" kit from ALA's Public Programs Office available fall 2002 and a preconference presented by the PPO at the ALA Annual Conference in Toronto, June 2003. For more information, please contact email@example.com.
DEB ROBERTSON is director of ALA's Public Programs Office.