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Wilde Readings Open Mic:

Hold Your Tongue

young men preparing for battle

blog post by Laura Yoo

The Story Studs.  These are five guys – Keegan, Will, Nate, Sammy, and Julien – who are preparing for the biggest battle of their lives.  It will be the one of the nerdiest and the coolest (at the same time, yes) things they do together: They will fight in Howard County’s Battle of Books.

Battle of Books is Howard County Library System’s impressive reading program that encourages elementary school students to read a same set of books and come together to compete. On April 17th, fifth graders from all over the county will show up at various high school gyms to battle in teams.  They will have read and studied 12 books to answer questions about those books. They will have awesome team names – like the Story Studs – and decked out in costumes.

The coaches and the team members have been diligently working our way through the 12 books:

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • Lucky Broken Girl and Ruth Behar
  • Me, Frida, and the Secrets of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes
  • Forest World by Margarita Engle
  • Sharks: Nature’s Perfect Hunter by Joe Flood
  • Ban This Book by Alan Gratz
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah
  • The Real McCoys by Matthew Swanson
  • Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier
  • Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford
  • Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan

As the assistant coach, I have been enjoying the books, too.  So far,  Ban This Book, Ghosts, and Save Me a Seat have really impressed me.  These books range in their topics, characters, and settings. Each book, however, touches on a theme or a topic that I’d love for all children to think about: how to welcome strangers, bullying, not judging a book by its cover, death, family, culture, friendship, family life, freedom of speech, censorship, and reading. Yes, just in these three books, the little readers are exposed to all these topics.  I think Ban This Book ought to be made into a kids’ movie.  The multicultural elements in Save Me a Seat and Ghosts show just how thoughtfully the library is choosing these books – books like these can be windows through which children can see and learn about other cultures.

The Story Studs will now meet about every other week to catch up with each other about the books they’re reading. At each meeting, the readers update each other on their reading progress and share one story map they’ve completed (this helps them take notes about each book). They play games to learn and memorize the titles and the author names.  They have also begun drafting their own sample questions to use to prepare for battle. It’s fun, but it’a also serious learning business.

The beauty of this Battle of Books – at least for the Story Studs – is that it brings together these close friends to share more quality time outside of school.  They arrive at one of our homes after school, eat snacks, and run around for a few minutes. Then, they sit and work diligently for a good 45 minutes.  Then off they go again to release more of that 10-year old energy. I absolutely love it.

I will report back on how the real battle goes on April 17th.  Now – where to find leather jackets for 10 year old boys…

At long last, an hour with poet Seamus Heaney.

Seamus Heaney was a force of nature who visited Howard County an unbelievable three times.

Heaney, who won a Nobel Prize and was called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died in 2013. HoCoPoLitSo, the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, was lucky enough to host Heaney for three readings — in 1982, in 1988, and in 1994. His 1994 visit many HoCoPoLitSo veterans remember as the ice storm visit, when everything else was cancelled because the city was encased in a good half-inch of ice, but stalwarts trudged through the storm to see Heaney read.

On the last two of his readings, HoCoPoLitSo’s founder, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, wisely taped interviews with Heaney, first with a noted scholar George O’Brien, and then with a fellow poet, Roland Flint, posing questions.

During his long and amiable correspondence with Kennedy, Heaney decided that he did not want the taped interviews to be sold as part of HoCoPoLitSo’s television talk show series, The Writing Life. In one letter from the 1990s, he writes: “As I have said often before, there are already too many interviews by me, going over the same ground. There is nothing new in the material on your transcript.” In the margin, in his long, looping handwriting, Heaney wrote: “(tho’ I do like the Yeats riff at the end)!” Since that time, the world has changed immensely. Heaney is no longer around to conduct interviews, and HoCoPoLitSo no longer sells DVDs or taped versions of the interviews.

But the society does have a YouTube channel where these formerly hidden gems – featuring writers such as Donald Hall, Frank McCourt, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton — are now available for free to students, writers, and scholars.

For ten years, HoCoPoLitSo sought permission from the estate to upload the interviews to our channel on YouTube. Finally, Faber & Faber Ltd. granted permission, HoCoPoLitSo received a donation to cover the rights fee, and the video is finally seeing the light of day on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube channel.

All sixty minutes of the video are available, as well as a transcript, upon request, for scholars and readers and fans of Heaney’s work. In the video, Heaney sits on a stage, with his arm slung around the back of his chair, and takes questions from Georgetown professor O’Brien, and from the audience. He speaks about his life as a boy on his family’s small farm, his time in boarding school, the parallel between the rise of his life as a writer and the rise of the rebellion and unrest in Northern Ireland.

He says in the interview, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course, it’s necessary for us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. Writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than the second or third circle where the big part is writing, is publicity.”

He recites “Digging,” at Ellen Kennedy’s request, and reads, “Alphabets”, and “From the Republic of Conscience”, as well as sonnets dedicated to his mother, “Clearances”. The program ends with the story about writing a poem to celebrate his niece’s birth because he hadn’t any present for the family, then the triumphant reading of the charming poem, “A Peacock’s Feather for Daisy Garrett.”

HoCoPoLitSo has a forty-five year history of providing epiphany-inducing programs with literary greats. But those programs are ephemeral, seared in many people’s memories, but gone when the event is over.

The Writing Life series captures those unbelievable literary moments; seeing, after all, is believing.
Donations to support The Writing Life are welcomed and tax-deductible.

 

Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary and The Writing Life producer

 


HoCoPoLitSo’s 42 Annual Evening of Irish Writing and Music is on Friday, February 21, 2020, featuring Alice McDermott, music by O’Malley’s March, and traditional Irish dancing with the Teelin Dance Company. Click here to learn more.

Butter Beans and Poems: A Harvest Reading

There’s something primal about harvest, something deeper, more resonant than a pumpkin spice latte when the leaves start to fall.

Harvest is about food, of course, a storing away of all the energy and sunshine and hard work of summer for a slower, more contemplative time. Sure, there are pumpkins, but fall is also about the last tomatoes and corn, and the starchy parsnips and potatoes that last all winter long.

I think of poems and stories as a kind of harvest, storing up the ephemeral to be savored later.

The Between the Leaves Project is about linking writing with the food we grow and eat. HoCoPoLitSo and the Howard County Library have teamed up to put literature — about collard greens and zinnias and raspberries and butter beans — in the Enchanted Garden at the Miller Branch.

Signs, bearing excerpts from poems and novels that relate to the crops being grown, have been thrust into the garden plots, a lovely quarter-acre just outside the Ellicott City library branch. The vegetables and fruits grown in the garden by volunteers, from library teens to Master Gardeners, are harvested every week and donated to the Howard County Food Bank.

The signs offer a little taste of literature in the garden, but if you’d like a full serving, attend the harvest reading on Oct. 28. Authors, board members of HoCoPoLitSo, and staff and friends of the library will read poems that will leave us hungry. Hear works by Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Gary Snyder, Pablo Neruda, and other authors. Snacks will be served and books with the poems, as well as excerpts from novels and short stories, will be available for borrowing.

Join us at the drop-in reading 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, at the Miller Branch library in the garden under the twinkling lights, for an evening of poetry to savor.

Miller Branch Library Enchanted Garden

Over the moon for library’s read-alouds for adults

a blog post written by Susan Thornton Hobby (HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary)

I was primed for the Central Library’s short story program. Years of childhood bedtime stories read to me by my mother from what my brother and I called “the red books,” a sixteen-volume set published by The Spencer Press in 1953 made me first into a riveted listener, and then a devoted reader.

Those books, especially Best Loved Poems and First Story Book, included gems like “Wynken, Blinken, and Nod” and “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And when I had children, I spent seventeen years reading out loud, from the red books and You Can Name One Hundred Trucks through all nine Harry Potters and into Something Wicked This Way Comes.

So when the Central Library started “Keep it Short: Adult Selections Read Aloud,” I was already on the “bedtime stories for adults” train. On July 16, library story-tellers Roy Ringel and Michael Toner read space-themed texts, since it was the 50th anniversary of the launching of the Apollo 11 rocket.

On July 16, 1969, the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket launches on the Apollo 11 mission from the Kennedy Space Center

Ringel read D.C. writer Amber Sparks’ short story “The Janitor in Space,” a haunting, quiet story about a wounded woman who finds a little solitary peace cleaning up after astronauts on the space station. The audience settled in, and we listened stock-still to Ringel: “She keeps the station clean and shiny as the future,” Ringel read, and “lonely is the only thing she owns.”

In a shirt embroidered with tiny parrots, Toner read “The Great Silence,” by Ted Chiang. The story is narrated by a parrot who laments that humans listen so intensely for extraterrestrial messages from the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, but they ignore the brilliant language of the parrots all around them, the ones that are going extinct.

And Ringel finished the evening’s adult story-time with President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University that many credit with Americans supporting space exploration. “The eyes of the world now look into space,” Ringel read, “We choose to go to the moon, and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Caren Ferris explained that she is a regular attender at the short story readings: “it opens me to new ideas. You stumble across a writer you can connect with. You come across things you wouldn’t have seen yourself.” A story by Langston Hughes read during the library’s February “Keep it Short” program has stayed with Ferris all year, she says, and she always goes back and researches and reads more of the authors’ work. These stories, she says, “connect the dots.”

However literature can reach people, stretch their minds, and connect them with other humans (or parrots), HoCoPoLitSo is all for it. And so am I. I was so cozy after the stories. If only the library allowed sleepovers.

The library resumes adult read-aloud programs at the Central Branch in the fall. Sunday, Oct. 27, 2 p.m., is “Word Music: Poetry for Adults,” with Roy Ringel and Erin Frederic. The program spans English poetry’s history, starting in the 16th century and concluding with contemporary poets, and features the work of Shakespeare, Dickinson, Neruda, Hughes, and Angelou.  On Wednesday, Nov. 13, 7 p.m., Michael Toner reads Maile Meloy’s “Madame Lazarus,” and Roy Ringel presents “This Water,” by David Foster Wallace. Visit http://hclibrary.org/classes-events/ to register.

 

Why I’ll never wash my white T-shirt again

A micro-memoir in the style of Beth Ann Fennelly, written by Susan Thornton Hobby, Executive Producer of the Writing Life 

Beth Ann Fennelly showed up at the Blackbird Poetry Festival last week in a skirt printed with rows of books of many colors, lime-green and fuchsia shoes, a brown sweater dotted with green flowers and a vintage chartreuse Canada Dry T-shirt that I coveted. Fennelly, who was at the festival to give a workshop, and give two readings, is the author, most recently, of Heating and Cooling: 52 micro-memoirs.

Anyone looking at both of us together could tell immediately who the poet was – I was in a white T-shirt, black pants and gray jacket. I did put on my red shoes, but other than that, I was as neutral as Switzerland.

Danielle Maloney, television director extraordinaire of The Writing Life, explained that because we use a green screen with a computer-generated set when taping the show, Fennelly’s torso would disappear – literally melt into the electronic background.

Fennelly would be not the headless horseman but the torso-less poet. She and I locked eyes. Then we both looked at my chest. The white T-shirt.

As she later told the audience at the Nightbird reading, “my host gave me the shirt off her back.”

But in the television studio, Beth Ann moaned, “I need color,” gazing forlornly at my boring shirt.

HoCoPoLitSo’s managing director Pam Simonson, the ultimate problem-solver, donated her butter-yellow jacket, which matched a few books on the skirt, and Beth Ann had a new outfit. I wore a Dragon Digital Television polo that the director found in a box in her office.

After a deep and hilarious thirty-minute conversation on The Writing Life, lead by poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, Fennelly and I rushed to the car so she could grab some dinner and change before the evening reading. I was carrying books, a few remaining cookies from the dozen I baked to fuel the student camera operators, my jacket, Pam’s jacket, and the white T-shirt.

After I had dropped Fennelly at her hotel, I wanted to change back into my white shirt for the reading. I searched  my car’s back seat, front seat, floorboards. It was gone.

I realized I must have dropped it. No time to find another shirt – I just threw my jacket on top of my black Dragon Digital polo and picked up the poet to reach the reading on time.

Just as we were turning into the parking garage, I told Beth Ann I needed to go search the hallways of Howard Community College for my T-shirt. And then then headlights hit it – a crumpled puddle of white on the parking garage floor.

“I’ll get it!” Beth Ann shrieked, and jumped out, the rhinestones on her vintage dress flashing in the headlights as she triumphantly held the shirt over her head. The shirt was criss-crossed with tire tracks. It smelled of damp cement, Michelin radials, and Beth Ann Fennelly.

I’ll never wash it.

Beth Ann Fennelly: It’s all about the mouth

blog post by Susan Thornton Hobby

An open and shut case at Blackbird Poetry workshop…

Only Beth Ann Fennelly could urge more than 150 people gathered for a writing workshop during the Blackbird Poetry Festival to stick their fingers in their mouths and repeat: “Bet, butt, bet, butt, bet, butt,” until they had figured out how their tongues were making the words.

It also could have been the threat of interpretive dance (their own, if they did not participate).
Either way, Fennelly clearly illustrated her point – the shape of our mouths influences the connotations certain sounds retain, in languages around the world. And therefore, the sounds bring meaning to poetry.

Here’s her quiz.

Carl Sandberg wrote: “The voice of the last cricket/ across the first frost/ is one kind of goodbye.”
The next line, Fennelly asked, is it “so thin a splinter, so meager a morsel or so small an atom?” “Thin a splinter,” someone called from the back of the room. “Yes,” Fennelly said. “That short ‘i’ sound – the sound of small, a vulnerable feeling. “

Poets use sound to make meaning with words that suggest meanings, through their brevity or length of sound (“pup” and “bark” are the same number of syllables, but they take longer to say), the pleasure or discomfort of the sounds in our mouths (“melodious” versus “sticky”), and by setting up and displacing a metrical scheme.

“I’m hedonistic about feeling the sound of words, there’s a pleasure of sound,” Fennelly told the group.
She lead them through poems by Robert Herrick (“melting, melodious words to lutes of amber,” and by Robert Frost, (“The Span of Life” – “the saddest poem in the English language,” Fennelly said.) She talked about how sounds of words can move the poem faster or slower, how a change in sound and rhyme and rhythm can surprise the reader in a good or unpleasant way.

By the end of the workshop, Fennelly gave dark chocolate bars to the students who scored the best on the quiz that tested their ear for poetry’s sounds. Because it was all about the mouth.

P.S. A week after her visit to Columbia, Fennelly was awarded The Excellence in Graduate Teaching & Mentoring Award by the University of Mississippi where she teaches.

Beth Ann Fennelly and Susan Thornton Hobby laugh together after the Nightbird reading on April 25, 2019 (photo credit: Laura Yoo)

 

Teen Open Mic in Columbia

A guest blog by Faye McCray

When I first started teaching writing workshops with kids, it was for selfish reasons. I was in a place of transition in my career and that meant a great deal of obnoxious self-reflection about what made me truly happy. I knew it wasn’t my day job and when I pictured myself happy, I kept conjuring up the same image: Kid-me, twelve-ish, sitting in front of my sixth grade classmates reading my work for the first time. To be clear, I didn’t want to actually be twelve again. God, no. There were braces and glasses and bad relaxers. However, I did want that feeling. The feeling of being surrounded by folks ready to listen and be heard.

As a child, I was a voracious reader. My favorite work was fiction that took place in worlds completely different from mine. In retrospect, I don’t know if that was my curiosity or just the fact that worlds that looked like mine didn’t really exist in the nineties literary landscape. Either way, for me, reading was like getting to try on another person’s soul. It was the ability to see, feel and taste what life was like in a way completely different from my own. I could go from my reality: being a girl with box braids and a beef patty on a subway in Queens to a young woman on vacation in Monte Carlo who meets and marries a man who, unbeknownst to her, murdered his first wife.

When my sixth grade teacher decided to task us with writing original work to share with our classmates, it was as if I was going to finally see them and they would finally see me. Truth be told, I was probably the most excited kid in class. However, the seed was planted. I was a writer, and I bet if I looked hard enough, there were other kids who thought they were writers too.

On March 22, I had the pleasure of hosting the Columbia Art Center’s first Teen Open Mic. The theme was “Choose Civility”, HoCo’s most known slogan which in the current social and political climate, could mean a great many things. I was so nervous leading up to the event. I knew how much a Teen Open Mic would have meant to me.  I also wondered if the idea was antiquated. After all, isn’t social media one big open mic with the added benefit of anonymity?

As teens trickled into the Art Center, however, I could see the same excited anticipation I had felt over twenty years ago written all over their faces.  Naturally, there were nerves but armed with their words on their phones or on sheets of paper in their hands, they were ready. Their powerful work ranged in topic from mental health to self-acceptance to race to the environment. I was moved – not only by the incredible work itself but how beautifully it was received. The crowd was modest but as I said to the young writers that evening, I preferred it that way.

By the end of the night, as we wandered around the beautiful art center and munched on the remaining snacks, the mood felt light. The teens, who had arrived as strangers, now shared praise and encouragement, promising to “see each other next time.” Their enthusiasm was infectious. I realized that although I was decades away from making that discovery in my own sixth grade classroom, I was invested in making similar experiences a possibility for other pre-teens and teens. We all have a desire to be heard. More importantly, we all have a valuable story to tell.

About the blogger:

Faye McCray is an author and essayist whose popular essays on love, life and parenting have been featured in the Huffington Post, My Brown Baby, For Harriet, Madame Noire and other popular publications. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Weemagine, a website devoted to celebrating and inspiring all children and the people who love them. Faye is also the author of Dani’s Belts, a collection of horror short stories, Boyfriend, a full length novel about a troubled college student struggling with love and fidelity, and I am Loved! a collection of positive affirmations for kids. Find out more about Faye on her website: http://www.fayemccray.com/

Remembering W.S. Merwin — Susan Thornton Hobby

W. S. Merwin, a fellow pacifist, writer, and gardener, was a hero in all things to me.

The poet died this weekend at the age of 91 in his Hawaiian home. He was one of the first authors who wrote verse about the catastrophes of the Vietnam War and its effects not just on the American soldiers, but on the devastated Vietnamese countryside and people. He refused to accept his Pulitzer Prize for his book The Carrier of Ladders in 1971 because of the tragedies occurring in southeast Asia centering on the Vietnam War.

Merwin reclaimed his “garden,” nineteen acres of Hawaiian pineapple plantation land that had been wrecked by agricultural abuse. Over forty years, he hand-planted the dirt with 3,000 palm seedlings and transformed barren fields into a native rainforest. That land is now in permanent conservation.

But most of all, I admire Merwin for his gem-like poems of sheer beauty. What this writer could do with words – both his own and with those of French, Spanish, Latin and Italian poets that he translated – was astonishing.

Merwin visited HoCoPoLitSo in 1994, just after he had won the first Tanning Poetry Prize, which was awarded to a master American poet, but before he won his second Pulitzer in 2009. He spoke to a small group of 50 people about the craft of writing, then read his poetry to the audience that crowded the ballroom, lobby and stairways of Oakland Manor.

Earlier that day, he taped an episode of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer talk show. On that show, he spoke with poet Roland Flint about a coming environmental crisis in the world: “What is happening to the great forests in the world, I feel it like an illness,” Merwin said, thumping his fist into his belly. Because people have cut themselves off from the world outside their windows and screens, “we find ourselves in a place that is false and dangerous, and increasingly destructive.”

To watch him read his exquisite verse, “Late Spring,” “West Wall,” and “The Solstice” from The Rain in the Trees, and two poems from Travels, “Witness” and “Place” watch The Writing Life episode.

 

West Wall
W.S. Merwin

In the unmade light I can see the world
as the leaves brighten I see the air
the shadows melt and the apricots appear
now that the branches vanish I see the apricots
from a thousand trees ripening in the air
they are ripening in the sun along the west wall
apricots beyond number are ripening in the daylight
Whatever was there
I never saw those apricots swaying in the light
I might have stood in orchards forever
without beholding the day in the apricots
or knowing the ripeness of the lucid air
or touching the apricots in your skin
or tasting in your mouth the sun in the apricots

 

To learn more about Merwin and his life, watch the documentary about his life. Or visit the tribute page on his publisher’s site.

Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording Secretary

 

Make Poetry Great Again (Though It Was Always Great)

Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall. Photo by Douglas Graham.

His Excellency Daniel Mulhall, the Irish Ambassador to America, drew a hearty laugh from the audience at Friday night’s Irish Evening of Music and Poetry.

As a daily counterbalance to the insanity on Twitter, Mulhall sends out a few lines of Irish poetry every morning.

To the audience at the poetry reading last week, Mulhall joked that he’s starting a campaign: “It’s time to Make Poetry Great Again.”

After the laughter died down, HoCoPoLitSo board members could be heard muttering amongst themselves, “Poetry was always great.”

But timeline quibbles aside, HoCoPoLitSo was thrilled to welcome the ambassador and sterling poet Vona Groarke to the forty-first Irish Evening.

Last Friday morning, in tribute to Irish Evening, Mulhall sent into the Twitterverse a few lines from Groarke’s beautiful poetry:

Anyway, the leaves were almost on the turn
And the roses, such as they were, had gone too far.

It was snow in summer. It was love in a mist.
It was what do you call it, and what is its name
And how does it go when it comes to be gone?

There’s at least one thing that Mulhall and U.S. President Donald Trump share – they like to start the day with a Tweet. But oh, there’s a world of difference between them.

The poems Groarke read on Friday night were both tender and fierce. Her “Pier,” was well applauded for its verve in chronicling the leap from a pier into the Atlantic on Spittel beach, on the West coast of Ireland. Though Groarke confessed that she hasn’t yet made the leap herself, she’s watched it done, she said, a bit sheepishly. And the poem proves she can feel it.

Vona Groarke. Photo by Douglas Graham.

Many in the audience commended Groarke’s translation from the Irish – the first by a woman poet – of “The Lament for Art O’Leary.” This poem chronicles the mourning and protest of a wife, keening over the body of her Catholic husband, killed by the Protestants, ostensibly for having too fine a horse. And Groarke’s translation was both sensual and sorrowful.

The selections of prose Groarke read from Four Sides Full, her book of prose about art frames, were illuminating, particularly the anecdote about the show of empty frames in the Hermitage in Leningrad, signifying the hiding of artwork to preserve it.

Poetry and music brought some 300 people together last Friday night. Perhaps verse can heal divisions in countries, between people, if we only open our hearts to others’ stories.

 

Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary

 

book clubs: who, what, and why

By Laura Yoo

Here’s a small sample of the books my book club has read. I also listened to the following audio books: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

A popular image of book clubs is that it’s an “excuse” for women to get together to drink wine. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. But my book club, which I joined two years ago, is actually a book club. The 14 member group is super organized, and we actually read the books that we choose as a group (done very democratically). There is wine and a good amount of talking politics, but overall it is a reading club. There is always robust literary discourse.

Book clubs and the battle of the sexes

Pew Research reports that 11% of Americans are involved in some kind of a reading circle or a book club. But in general book clubs are seen as something women do. Men have poker nights. Women have book clubs.

It turns out that it actually has a historical beginning as a female activity. Audra Otto, writing for MinnPost, reports 1634 as the first known instance of an organized reading group in (or on the way to) America:

On a ship headed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, religious renegade Anne Hutchinson organizes a female discussion group to examine sermons given at weekly services. Eventually condemned by the Bay Colony’s general assembly, the gatherings inaugurated a tradition of women’s analytical discussion of serious texts.

The banning of this organization signals that a gathering of women to share ideas was seen as dangerous or maybe even evil. But, women continued to organize elsewhere. Hannah Adams formed a reading circle in the late 1760s and Hannah Mathers Crocker in 1778. Adams’ and Crocker’s reading circles are revolutionary in that they created opportunities for women to form communities of intellectual development when women couldn’t go to school or college.

Another example of such revolutionary gatherings is the Friends in Council formed by Sarah Atwater Denman, the oldest continuous women’s literary club in America.

In November of 1866, Denman invited 11 ladies to her home to create a study plan. She wanted each member of her book club to develop a philosophical point of view for herself, and a study plan was an excellent place to begin. Over time, Friends in Council consumed great works of history and philosophy, spending two years on Plato alone.

So, historically speaking, the book club has been a female act of subversion.

Book clubs in the 21st century

A 2016 The New York Times article caused some stir when it profiled The Man Book Club, the International Ultra Manly Book Club, and the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club. The article mentioned that the The Man Book Club in California has a “No books by women about women” rule. This and other details about these men’s book clubs suggested chauvinism and sexism. The backlash was so strong that The Man Book Club issued An Apologia on their website, in which they explain how they arrived at their group name (think the Man Booker Prize) and how they select their books (which does include books by women). It seems that because book clubs are pegged as “female” activity, these men hyper-emphasize the “man” part of their book club. While many criticized these men clubs, others like Slate’s L.V. Anderson came to their defense, saying,

We shouldn’t see all-male book clubs as a reactionary backlash against female book clubs, or an attempt to co-opt a traditionally female space, but as a way for men to enjoy the social and intellectual benefits of book clubs without destroying the homosocial camaraderie of all-female book clubs.

Today, book clubs go beyond groups of friends getting together to read and chat. Websites like Meetup.com and other social media tools help us organize or join groups with strangers. The NYC Gay Guy’s Book Club, for instance, has 120 members on Meetup.com and anywhere between 10 to 60 members show up for a meeting at a public library. The search results for book clubs in my area include The Girly Book Club of Baltimore, Intersectional LGBTQ+ Allies Book Club for Women of DMV, and the Silent Reading Club (of Rockville). I am particularly loving this idea of gathering in a group to read silently.

Recently, I was invited to attend another friend’s book club gathering to talk about Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. This was a much smaller group – there were only four of us that night. We got comfy on the couch, drank wine, talked about the book a little, then talked mostly about our families, our kids, education and schools, about how we grew up, and even some politics. It was a lovely evening.

Book clubs are not about the books (only)

I think we can see that the book club is not always (only) about books. For many, the book club is a way to see friends and form meaningful bonds, as both the Man Book Club and the International Ultra Manly Book Club report. For others, the book club is a way to meet new people. As Jon Tomlinson, founder of the NYC Gay Guys’ Book Club says, “People come to connect, to find their place in a new city, to fall in love.”

For Scarlett Cayford, the book club was a way to meet people when she moved to London – four years later, she was still going to the same book club. As Cayford says, book clubs are not about books – they are “about bonding, and they’re about conversation, and they’re about sharing secrets. I can’t speak for all, of course, but the book clubs I‘ve attended usually end up involving about 30 minutes of intense book discussion […] and nigh on three hours on the subject of different sexual proclivities.”

Well, my book club does not discuss sexual proclivities. Nonetheless, I look forward to my monthly book club gatherings for two reasons. First is that I have time built into my schedule to see my friends. We take turns hosting at our homes and facilitating the discussion. I enjoy the company of these women who are my colleagues, mentors, and friends – and I cherish the opportunities to see them regularly.

The second is that the book club makes me read. Sometimes – like my students – I cram my reading just a few days before the gathering. Recently, I’ve had to admit to myself that I watch more than I read. I’m much more likely to pick up my tablet or turn the TV on to binge-watch something deliciously useless. After a long day at work and shuttling the kids around, it’s a relief to change into pajamas and cozy up in my “reading chair” to watch the outrageously handsome Hyun Bin in a Korean drama or ass-kicking Keri Russell in The Americans. I used to actually read in that reading chair. After a long day at work and shuttling kids around, it was a relief to get lost in a good book. But the ease of accessing television shows on mobile devices is oh-so-tempting. So, my book club is my antidote to binge-watching.

Nerd-by-Nerd

This month, our book club is reading Word by Word by Kory Stamper. I am not sure what my book club members are feeling about it – we haven’t met yet – but I am loving every page of this book. I am a word-nerd, and I am savoring the juicy details of how the dictionary is written and how we may be in the middle of a seismic shift in the meaning of “of” (as suggested by the newfangled phrase “bored of” as opposed to “bored from” and “bored with”). I’m giddy about exchanging tweets with Stamper about her use of the word “goddamned” which I found amusing. I’m enjoying the book, for sure. But I’m REALLY going to enjoy talking about it with my friends this week.

I don’t know about subversion and rebellion and all that, but I know I enjoy the company of my friends, books, and wine – that’s a powerful combination.

Save the Date! HoCoPoLitSo is sponsoring a book club of cli-fi, climate fiction, at the Miller Library, one book each season. The first book, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, will be discussed April 4, 7 to 8 p.m. Discussion will be led by Susan Thornton Hobby, a consultant to HoCoPoLitSo, and Julie Dunlap, a writer and environmental educator. More details to come!

Laura Yoo HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Professor of English at Howard Community College.

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