Young moms can always bond over their children, but back in 1998, Alison Davis, Barbara Jackson, and Norma Weldon, who each had young boys, found their conversations veering away from parental strategy and more into what books they were reading.
“I’ve always been a reader, and it didn’t stop when I had my children,” says Barbara. “I so enjoyed discussing books with Alison and Norma that I thought it might be fun to expand our group into a real book club. Oprah Winfrey had recently started hers, and it seemed like a good idea. They thought so too, so we got to work.”
That summer, the trio met at Norma’s Lake Murray home to map out the plan for the book club they decided to call the Literary Ladies. Since monthly meetings seemed like a huge commitment, they decided that the group would meet every other month. Food would be minimal — popcorn and a sweet kind of thing to be passed around during the discussion. And serving wine was a definite. They also decided to meet after dinner at 7:30 p.m., which would give members a chance to get their families fed and organized for bedtime.
They each invited 10 friends for the inaugural book club meeting, held in September at Barbara’s home. The book they chose was The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. “This was before email was widely used, so we invited everyone by mail,” says Norma. “Barbara is a talented artist, so she designed a beautiful postcard that tied into the book and then had it printed. We hand addressed each one, popped them in the mail, and waited to hear back.”
About 15 women attended that first meeting of the Literary Ladies; Barbara served as the group’s de facto discussion leader. “It was different then because books didn’t come with book club questions listed in the back,” recalls Norma. “Barbara would do the research, prepare the questions and, in her wonderful schoolteacher voice, lead the group through a great dialogue.”
Setting the Literary Ladies apart from other book clubs was a film element, which came courtesy of Alison, a long-time movie buff. “We always ended our meetings with Alison leading a debate about who would play each of the book’s characters in the movie version,” says Barbara. “On our off months, we would go see movies at the Nickelodeon and then discuss them at Miyo’s on Main Street. We saw many strange and disturbing films that led to a lot of fascinating discussions.”
As the years went on, the Literary Ladies evolved. Hosting duties rotated between members, and they got creative, bringing in authors to discuss their works or to shed light on a specific genre and serving food that matched the theme or locale of the book. When the group read The Girl with the Pearl Earring, a fictionalized account of the life of the girl depicted in 17th-century artist Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting of the same title, the host brought in an artist who was an authority on Vermeer to share insight about his life. Discussions were often memorable, as was the case when the group read The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham’s account of a World War I veteran’s search for meaning, or, more recently, a book about politics. “It shifted into a discussion about power, which was fascinating,” says Norma. “The book affected everyone in different ways.”
More than 20 years later, the group is still going strong. Alison thinks she knows why. “We started the group because we love books, enjoy meeting new people, and are interested in hearing different perspectives,” she says. “It’s still that way.”
Barbara believes it has something to do with the mentality of the club’s members. “Some people feel as though they’re too busy to read,” she says. “We’re too busy not to read!”
Melanie Snipes, who founded her yet-to-be-named book club about two years ago, has also determined that actually reading the book is key to her enjoyment of the book club experience. “The first book club I joined was fun, but it was purely social,” she says. “The book, which no one ever read, was just an excuse to get together. I’m all for drinking wine with friends, but I was really excited about the discussion part, so when it didn’t work out with that group, I decided to start my own book club.”
Melanie’s group got its start on Facebook; she put out a call to friends asking if anyone knew how to start a book club, but no one came forward with any assistance. Yet several asked her to get in touch if she decided to move forward with one because they wanted to join. “So that’s how we first got together,” she says. Though small — the group has just 12 active members — the club gets together every month to discuss a wide range of books that has included Agatha Christie mysteries; Saints of All Occasions, a 2017 novel about a pair of Irish twins; and The Power, a sci-fi story.
“Our small size has really allowed us to open up as a group,” she says. “Our discussions flow so naturally that we rarely have to rely on the questions in the back of the book. The hardest part is waiting for everyone to arrive before we delve in. We’re all so eager to get started!” One of her most memorable discussions was about The Power. “The discussion was an intense one about power and corruption.”
Maxine Henry, who joined Melanie’s group soon after it was founded, says that although she does not always enjoy the books, she always enjoys participating in the discussion. “We talk about everything from the reliability of the narrator to the social issues it covers and whether we found the ending satisfying. Since a lot of us are social workers, we often end up discussing the behaviors displayed by the characters as well.”
To keep up with busy schedules, the group’s meeting dates are fluid. “At the end of every meeting we get out our calendars and figure out the best date for the next gathering,” says Melanie. “So far, it’s worked really well.” Then the date and title of the book are posted on the group’s private Facebook page. “We started out sharing nothing more than a love of books, but over the years we’ve become extremely tight-knit. I so value the deep friendships that book club has helped me develop.”
Friends Ansley Lee and Kathryn Harris started a book club named Vino & Volumes a few years ago while in their early 30s. “We were looking for something social, so we surveyed our friends and decided to start a book club,” says Ansley. “One of the things we knew we wanted was an open-door policy that allows friends to always bring friends. It really adds to the discussion.”
Kathryn also says that the book club has served as a unifier during a time when women of similar ages are often at very different points in their lives. “It gives us something else in common and allows us to stay close even though our lives might not be intersecting as regularly as they once were,” she explains. “I’m also seeing a side of many of my friends that I had never seen before, which is wonderful.”
Since the group’s founding, they have read more than two dozen books, including A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles’ post World War I saga of a Russian count forced to spend his life confined to a Moscow hotel; and Transcription, a World War II thriller about a female spy.
“Most of us knew each other before book club, but this gives us a chance to talk about things outside of our regular lives,” says Ansley. “Everyone has really gotten into it and has been so creative. When we discussed The Matriarch, which is about Barbara Bush, the hostess had us draw names of characters out of a bowl and discuss the book from his or her perspective.”
Since Ansley and Kathryn had heard from friends about book clubs that met for a couple of months and then fizzled away, the pair has worked hard to keep things interesting and exciting. Members sign in on vintage library cards, sip their wine from custom wine glasses etched with the group’s name, and hold holiday events like a Christmas book exchange. And something new they want to implement this year is a book of the year. The hostess of the current month’s book club provides small bites to eat as they discuss that month’s book. The host of the following month’s meeting even makes the announcement of the next book a bit of a ceremony with a “reveal” that involves a framed copy of its cover.
“We were definitely nervous about sustainability, but I feel like formalizing the process is one of the reasons we’re still going,” Kathryn says. “Starting a wine club or a supper club would have been easier, but we wanted to add something more to our lives. It’s tough some months to get the reading done, especially if the book isn’t your favorite, but the discussions are so meaningful when everyone has read the book.”
While many Columbia area book club members enjoy exploring different genres, a number of them take the opportunity to dive deeply into a single theme. The Inklings, a book club founded by Jan and Bill Kaneft about 15 years ago, takes its name from the original Inklings, an Oxford University-based community of writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. During its heyday from the 1930s until the 1950s, the original Inklings met each Monday to critique poetry and manuscripts that included such notable works as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Bill’s interest in Lewis started when he was a freshman in college and his campus minister challenged him to read and discuss Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. From there he moved to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and was hooked.
In the early 1990s, when Jan and Bill decided to start their book club that would focus on the works of Lewis, as well as other members of the Inklings, the goal was to focus primarily on Lewis’ mysticism, religious imagery, and battles between good and evil. “Jan and I both really enjoy his works and were able to attend the C. S. Lewis Conference in Oxford (England) in 2002,” says Bill.
The group’s first meeting was small, but the discussion of Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, which argues for the belief in God despite earthly suffering, was rich and satisfying. Other discussions followed, each deep and meaningful. As word spread, the group grew, pulling from the Kanefts’ church as well as from area universities, which blended the voices of both students and professors. “By the second year we often had more than 25 participants,” says Bill. “This group is a place to share love and to introduce people to the brilliant writings of the Inklings. They’re chock full of truth and brilliance but also pithy one-liners that are stunning.”
Following the example set by the original Inklings, the Kanefts’ Inklings also features an occasional pub night at which members are encouraged to read excerpts of texts they have written or of other writings they have come across and found intriguing. But the heart of the club is the meetings, which take place on Monday evenings throughout the year, with a break over the summer and in December.
“We’ve had children as young as 7, and I believe our oldest member was around 85,” says Bill. “It is always so fascinating to hear what people think as they read these great works of literature.”