Column: Still reading after all these years
By Ruth Marcus
WASHINGTON — My book group did not get off to an auspicious start. It was born from the rubble of a failed presidential campaign. The author who had agreed to come to discuss his new book died before the first meeting.
A quarter-century and 250 or so books later, Sunday’s Readers is still going strong.
As much as we might like to think so, we are not unique. Writing in Slate, Nathan Heller traces the origin of the modern book group — and it is mostly a girl thing — to “a push for women’s intellectual autonomy” in mid-18th-century England, when “motivated women of means and leisure began hosting salons for each other at home.” Edith Wharton, in her 1916 short story “Xingu,” archly describes the “ladies who pursue Culture in bands ... indomitable huntresses of erudition.”
Today, book groups, even post-Oprah, are a staple of the publishing industry. Our local independent bookstore, Politics and Prose, lists 20 in-store reading groups, from James Joyce to graphic novels. It orders selections for dozens more, including Sunday’s Readers.
We may be bowling alone, but we are reading together.
I was not present at the creation of Sunday’s Readers, by a dispirited band of Michael Dukakis campaign survivors looking for an intellectual jolt out of post-campaign doldrums. They started with I.F. Stone’s “The Trial of Socrates,” and, Washington being a town of connections and gutsy women, one member (Nancy) knew Stone’s son, wangled the author’s number, and called him up.
“We joked, ‘How could an 81-year-old man say no to a group of fun 20-something women?’” Nancy recalled. Stone happily agreed, but died of a heart attack before the meeting. “But it inspired us to ask others — that important people actually would say yes.”
Twenty-somethings? Were we really that young?
A quarter-century has witnessed many changes. Marriages and children. The death of husbands and, happily, remarriages as well. The birth of grandchildren. Various cancers, thankfully none fatal. Members have moved away and started Sunday’s Readers spin-offs. New readers have joined — the current roster is 26, which sounds ridiculously unwieldy except that we are a busy, on-the-road crew. On any given evening, there are about a dozen crowded into someone’s living room. By my count, about 14 from the original band remain.
As with any family, everyone plays her assigned role. Tamera is self-described La Segretaria, the authority figure who keeps us on task when we stray off topic or — worse! — discuss novels in terms of whether the characters are likable.
Bonnie keeps the master list of books and shares reviews in advance of the evening. In the old days, pre-email (yes, we’ve been around that long), they were Xeroxed and snail-mailed. Today, she attaches audio files of NPR interviews.
Heather is the official recapper, summarizing for any slackers who did not manage to finish — or, in my case when the kids were little, even start — the book. Some book groups are sticklers for performance. Ours is more forgiving. Turn up, especially with a bottle of wine, and no one will sniff about your not having read the selection.
August, we take off. September, instead of reading, we have a party and invite the men, who are ordinarily banished for the evening.
Oh yes, the books. Time was, we spent more energy debating what to read next than discussing what we had just read. Now, we choose electronically, with the help of SurveyMonkey. We read fiction and non-, classics and lighter fare.
The unfortunate experience with Stone notwithstanding, many generous authors have shared Sunday evenings with us, including local novelists Howard Norman (“The Bird Artist”), Alice McDermott (“Charming Billy”) and Helen Simonson (“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”), along with more traditional Washington types. Alas, space does not permit the humiliating story of how I took Katharine Graham to the wrong house when she came to discuss her autobiography.
There is talk, but there is also food — lots. These women have a competitive streak, and the matching of cuisine to book has produced impressive feasts. I was somehow tasked with hosting the night we read Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” managed to produce poulet poele a l’estragon and mousse au chocolat with a member’s husband-turned-sous-chef.
In the end, though, it’s not the books or the food that makes Sunday’s Readers so special. It’s the community. We share reading, but even more, we have one another’s backs, in good times and bad.
Cheers to our 25th year, everyone. Here’s looking forward to 25 more.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.