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Book-Group Therapy 

How the humanities council challenges Vermont readers

click to enlarge MICHAEL TONN
  • Michael Tonn

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Varnum Memorial Library in Jeffersonville is closed to the public, but inside it’s bustling with activity. As they unpack homemade beer cheese and pastries, an older couple chatter about how their elderly mule’s eating habits have changed since he lost his teeth. Natalie (last name withheld by request), a petite 87-year-old with a Clara Bow bob, describes the classical concert in which she and a friend played earlier that day. The group’s organizer, April Tuck, is out with the flu. “No kisses for April!” jokes one woman.

As folks get situated, several complain about the loose bindings of the books they’ve been reading. Finally, Linda Bland, dressed in a flowing snowflake-print skirt and matching red turtleneck, calls the Middle Eastern Voices book group to order. The eight assembled members launch into a discussion of Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North.

Two days later, in Shelburne, 21 residents of Wake Robin settle into the retirement facility’s cozy Hornbeam building for their own current book series, When Cultures Meet: First Contact Between the Natives and Europeans in “New France” and the Lake Champlain Basin. One woman stitches a needlepoint as she adds her two cents to the discussion. Another appears to be dozing on a couch — until she pipes up to share her observations on the domestication of European animals in the Americas.

Have these two quite different groups of Vermonters spontaneously chosen to educate themselves on weighty topics such as New World colonization and male identity in the Middle East? Not quite.

That is, they have chosen — but not unprompted. The Varnum and Wake Robin gatherings are part of the Vermont Humanities Council Reading and Discussion program, which oversees as many as 50 such groups around the state. In 2008, the VHC celebrated the 30 years since it first partnered with the Rutland Free Library to introduce a scholar-led discussion group. According to director Peter Gilbert, the first series, in 1978, had the theme “Women in Literature” and attracted 110 readers. The following year, a group called Women’s Work in and Outside the Home ended up with 220 members at the single library.

Gilbert says that impressive turnout helped the council spearhead a national movement of similar reading programs. “Every state has it in its own way now,” he notes.

In Vermont, dozens of nonprofit groups — mostly libraries — choose from among 64 series of four to six books, or one of 27 individual books. With only about 25 copies of each title available to loan, sometimes readers have to settle for their second choice. For example, the Varnum group had chosen Memorable Memoirs before ending up with Middle Eastern Voices.

When a group is finished with its series, the members FedEx the books back to the humanities council or drop them off at the Montpelier office. So it might not be long before the Jeffersonville readers can sink their teeth into Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

Each organization pays the VHC $75 per session, which gets it a book for every reader in the group, along with promotional materials and a “scholar” to facilitate. This is usually an author or retired college professor, though filmmaker Jay Craven has also led some discussions.

In the spirit of inclusiveness, VHC provides audiobooks for the vision impaired, and will even record one if a commercial version doesn’t exist for a chosen title. Gilbert says there have been no requests for Braille books, but the council would provide them should the circumstance arise.

The VHC book group model has expanded from libraries to hospitals, where employees meet to discuss health-care-themed novels, and to prison programs that encourage literacy. Asked if the latter offer a series known as “Revenge” to inmates, Gilbert responds with a chuckle, “No, that would probably be a bad idea.”

Scholars are paid $175 per group meeting — not much, considering the preparation that Bland, for one, puts into her presentations. If the author of the group’s current book is still alive, Bland makes every effort to find out what he or she would like the discussion to focus on. In the case of Season of Migration to the North, since Salih passed away this year, Bland is focusing instead on gathering input from his friends and researching his native Sudan.

As a VHC scholar, Bland, who’s also an author, teacher and former literary agent, is tasked with ensuring everyone has a voice in the book discussions. That means fielding less-than-enthusiastic reactions, too. Before starting to read Season of Migration to the North, Natalie admits, she had feared Middle Eastern Voices was a bad idea. Following dissatisfying experiences with magical realism in South American selections from a previous series, she says she was gun-shy about non-Anglophone authors.

“You’ve hated a lot of the books, Natalie, and I love it when you do,” Bland says with a smile. “I think that’s why we’re reading them, so we don’t hate things before we read them.”

It’s hard to say whether Bland’s “Don’t judge a book by its cover” life lesson is sinking in. Of course, book group participants always judge a series by its title — in Jeffersonville, Middle Eastern Voices was chosen by a vote open to all community members, whether they planned to come or not.

To take part, all people have to do is show up. But those who don’t may still be curious about the communal read: “We’ve actually had people who never participated come in and ask how we like the series,” says Tuck, director of human resources at Copley Hospital in Morrisville. Tuck recalls one man who joined the group several times just to decide whether a book was worth reading.

At Shelburne’s Wake Robin, scholar Merilyn Burrington explains that a committee of residents chose the retirement community’s current series, When Cultures Meet. Wake Robin’s meetings are among the best attended in the state. Twenty-one people are present today, but often as many as 30 turn out. When this happens, Wake Robin residents share their 25 allotted books with spouses and friends.

The assembled readers wear plastic name tags large enough to suit Flavor Flav. Discussion of the book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon is surprisingly academic. The group members use technical information acquired in their various career fields, such as geology and ecology, to inform their observations. Never mind their ages; this group resembles an energetic high school class full of outspoken achievers.

For its part, the good-natured Jeffersonville group has a way of finding humor even in a story of suicide among Western-educated Africans. “This book is about the myth of the black male penis and showing how silly the myth is,” postulates Natalie.

“I want to hear what Suzy has to say about the black male penis,” urges Bland.

“I don’t have any experience with that,” the curly-haired book club member retorts.

Not that this is a group of slouches. “I don’t think we’ve ever gone ‘light,’” says Tuck of their book choices. “These are very smart people. Not all are necessarily college educated, but [they are] intelligent through their own passion for reading.”

Tuck loves recounting one meeting at which a tourist showed up. “He thought it would be ‘cute’ to sit in on the book group. We were doing Understanding Post-Colonial Africa at the time and focused entirely on political theory. We blew him out of the water,” she says, chuckling.

While the Wake Robin group is composed of well-to-do seniors (including Lois McClure, known for her numerous philanthropic contributions to the community), Varnum Memorial hosts readers from all walks of life. According to Bland, her charges range in age from 18 to 89. Tuck says that, by providing the books at no charge, VHC “took away from the issues related to socioeconomic status.”

Opinions among the members are as varied as their life circumstances. Bland makes sure to go around the room and ask all participants what they find most resonant about the book. Many critique it harshly. One woman, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya in the 1980s, sums up the complaint of many: “This clown didn’t give us any character development of the women.”

In fact, gender is a recurrent issue in book groups, which are populated mainly by females. A male member of the Jeffersonville crew recently died, leaving only one other gentleman. The Wake Robin group appears more gender balanced, but Burrington notes that this depends on the subject matter. “In the past, when I’ve done series on topics like war, it brings the men out,” she says. By contrast, when Wake Robin tackles The Romantic Ideal series in March, Charlie Cutting won’t be there. “I gotta work on my income tax,” he demurs.

It’s no surprise that the most popular current topics among Vermont’s book groups are female-slanted choices such as Gastronomy: Novels About Food and Culture, Influential First Ladies, and Portraits of the Artists: Novels About Painters. Less popular books are traded with other organizations, often with the New Hampshire Humanities Council.

Which books don’t go over well in Jeffersonville? Tuck and Bland answer in unison: Walden. “Everybody turned on Thoreau,” Bland says with a laugh.

Even when the selection doesn’t make an impression, the experience of sharing a love of reading does, says Burrington, a onetime school librarian. “There’s nothing better in the world than talking about books.”

And, in the winter months, a book group can give rural readers a social life — and a reason to leave the house. “It’s how they deal with winter isolation,” says Gilbert of book group members. “It’s a way they make a connection with people and make sure they stay mentally active and read books that they otherwise wouldn’t.”

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About The Author

Alice Levitt

Alice Levitt

Bio:
AAN award-winning food writer Alice Levitt is a fan of the exotic, the excellent and automats. She's been writing for Seven Days since 2007 and appears regularly on "The :30" on WCAX.

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