Once a month 25 to 30 people sit around a big, square table at Southold Free Library and talk about a book they just read. All but six are women; all are of an age to have read “A Catcher in the Rye” when it was still in galley proofs; and all are smart. Smart in 25 to 30 different ways, but smart. Some come armed with printouts, book reviews and Spark Notes. Others arrive two minutes late, breathless, having just finished the last chapter sitting outside in their cars.
These are enormously patient and polite people, all brimming with opinions, up to their ears in insights, filled with love or hatred, disdain or admiration for the characters in this month’s book, filled with awe or criticism for the author’s writing skills, plotting techniques and imagination. They are literally bursting at the seams. Yet it’s rare that two people will be talking at the same time.
Some of this is attributable, certainly, to the leader of the pack, the astute Caroline MacArthur — pointing gently to raised hands, keeping things moving and ensuring equal time for all. But there’s no hiding from her. Maybe you hated the book, or failed to finish it. And you sit there, dead silent, hoping the meeting will end before you’re noticed. Then, impending doom arrives: “Jerry, you’ve been quiet. What did you think of it?” But when she nails me, and I’m feeling like Jimmy Cagney caught in the prison searchlight, I’m actually pleased. I can be myself, just like the other 24 to 29 people can — there’s no pressure to suddenly become brilliant, or to conform to the opinions of others.
And all of these book people are good-humored and without conceit. Someone might make an interesting point and the others nod their heads and say, “Gee, that’s terrific. I didn’t think of that when I read it.” The discussions are brisk, the give-and-take creative and thoughtful, the appreciation of one another obvious.
I think the best part for me is being induced to read good books — books I probably would never have chosen on my own. When Edith Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence’ was selected I inwardly groaned, yet it’s among my club favorites. I had never even heard of Colum McCann’s ‘Let the Great World Spin’; it has now replaced another title on my 10 Best list. And to reread a long-forgotten book like Graham Greene’s ‘The Heart of the Matter’ was an unexpected treat. So thank you, Caroline, and thank you, all 24 to 29 members. Thank you for ‘Atonement,’ ‘The Blind Assassin,’ ‘Devil in the White City,’ ‘Too Late the Phalarope,’ ‘John Adams,’ ‘The Madonnas of Leningrad,’ ‘Snow in August,’ ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ and many, many more.
The Southold Free Library Book Club celebrated its 11th anniversary in March. That’s 132 books I got to read, to give two thumbs up or two thumbs down, but that certainly kept my juices, my senses and my imagination flowing. Although we never did buy those sweatshirts that proclaim, “My Book Club Can Beat Up Your Book Club.” Ah, well.
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseat[email protected]