By John Gildersleeve
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Clarion, a publication of the California Library Association
You may think a book club consists of a group of intelligent, intellectually curious adults discussing characterization, plot, motivation, and context. Project Read, San Francisco Public Library’s adult-literacy program, thinks so, too. Participating in a book club is exactly what the Wednesday Night Readers (WNR) do eleven times a year, even though some members of the group read at an elementary-school level. Our discussions produce a rich amalgam of poignancy, reflection, comradeship, and just plain fun.
The books we read are written for adults, with an occasional young-adult offering. (See sidebar for a sampling of the books read to date.) Book selection is the responsibility of the Project Read staff, but recommendations are also encouraged from among the WNR. Books must be shorter than 300 pages and available on unabridged tape or CD. Learners have the option of listening to the recorded version either exclusively or in addition to reading the book. On most evenings we have between 10 and 20 members participating in the discussion. We meet on the last Wednesday of every month except December. Longer books (e.g., Seabiscuit) are selected for reading during the holiday hiatus.
The group is made up of both learners and tutors, all of whom become members simply by their attendance. Monthly discussions are facilitated by me and one other Project Read tutor. On book discussion evenings, we distribute the following month's book and recording, along with a discussion guide and full-color bookmark bearing the book's cover. All materials are free to participants. It is typical, but not required, for learner/tutor pairs to attend the discussions together.
At the start of each session, the readers vote on how well they liked the book: thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways for a mixed review. The floor is then opened to the learners to begin deliberating. The varied backgrounds of the members produce a richer, more textured discussion than might be found with a more homogeneous group—college graduates, for example.
Some learners read their first “real” book in WNR; others have their first-time experience of reading a book purely for pleasure; still others move from listening only, to listening and reading, to reading only. Each step is acknowledged by the group with the heartfelt enthusiasm befitting a life-changing milestone.
Learners who wish to read aloud to the group are given the opportunity to do so in a safe and supportive environment. No one is required to contribute to the discussion, but everyone has that opportunity. As is true with all groups, some members are more talkative and demonstrative than others. It is the facilitators' delicate job to see that everyone has a chance to contribute without stepping on the toes of the more talkative members.
When I began co-facilitating eight years ago, I was concerned that my lofty pronouncements would be taken as law. “I don't think anyone will disagree that _______ is the main character of this book,” I stated during the discussion of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. I was met with a barrage of dissent, followed by an intriguing debate of what constitutes a main character. As it turned out, three or four of the book's characters had strong proponents for main-character status. That experience, and many similar subsequent ones, disabused me of the notion that my role was somehow godlike.
Although finishing the book is not a requirement for attending the discussion, many participants often regret not doing so and, therefore, voluntarily commit to reading the remainder of the book after the session. In those instances, the power of discussion is almost palpable, producing deeper understanding and appreciation of literature.
Members come and go, but a core group of about 15 readers can be counted on to attend most of the sessions. While strong bonds grow among these regulars, cliquishness does not prevail. First-timers are welcomed. In many ways, joining WNR is like coming home to an ideal family.
One series we’ve enjoyed reading is Alexander McCall Smith's delightful The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. In these books, we’ve learned that the favorite beverage of Botswanans is bush tea, a drink that relaxes, revives and brings folks together the way leaf tea does the British. After trying it at one of our sessions, the WNR decided that perhaps bush tea is an acquired taste. Coincidentally, one of our members was born and raised in the same region of Africa, so when a custom described in the series seems strange, we often turn to her for verification. Thus far, everything in the books has been deemed authentic. How many other book clubs have built-in resources like that?
Our most unusual evening involved a group of actors from the local Screen Actors Guild, who performed scenes from Arthur Miller's play Death of a Salesman. Some of the learners had never seen a play, and the atmosphere was electric. Following the performance, the actors joined us in discussing the work—a truly magical moment. I was pleased to see the learners participating avidly in the discussion, proof that the skills and behaviors we foster here are transferable to unfamiliar situations.
I'm often asked how people who can't read can participate in a book club. The answer is that our learners—and not just those in WNR—can read and just want to improve their reading skills. Some want to be able to read to their children, others want to read a religious text, still others want to land a job or advance to a better one. They are an amazingly resourceful group of individuals who, with a truncated set of literacy skills, have learned to navigate the reading world with consummate dexterity. Many hold jobs whose requirements are beyond the level of their reading skill—they devise intricate workarounds to make their reading challenges invisible in the workplace. Most mortals would be exhausted by the time and energy these subterfuges take, yet these amazing people thrive and rise. It's no wonder, then, that they elevate and enliven the WNR discussions with a depth of experience, insight and innate savvy.
Lively and richly textured discussions are the norm in WNR. The learners, unencumbered of having been taught in college how to talk about a book, bring vigor and unfettered enthusiasm to the discussions, and flavor them with their life experiences, which tend to be fraught with difficulties we tutors can only imagine. The tutors, in turn, enrich the discussion with their breadth of knowledge and experience without becoming pedantic. Simply put, all of us learn from and teach one another. The result is a rich, thick soup that delights the senses and warms the spirit.
San Francisco Public Library’s Project Read offered the first Wednesday Night Readers book club in January 2001. Since that time, it has proven to be the most popular ongoing workshop ever offered for adult learners and their tutors. For the past eight years, John Gildersleeve, Erin McAleece, Renee Feldman, and Mary Hilton have all served as book club facilitators, providing a safe, welcoming, and supportive environment that fosters free expression and respect for others. The author of this article, John Gildersleeve, has been a volunteer with Project Read for over 15 years, serving as a tutor and mentor tutor. Co-facilitators Mary Hilton and Renee Feldman assisted with the preparation of this article. Learn more at http://projectreadsf.blogspot.com.
-Randall Weaver, Literacy Program Manager, San Francisco Public Library
Sampling of Books Read
Isabel Allende: Portrait in Sepia
John Howard Griffin: Black Like Me
Sue Monk Kidd: The Secret Life of Bees
Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
Jack London: The Call of the Wild
Mildred Taylor: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
Frank McCourt: Angela's Ashes
Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451