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Library Book Clubs Can Change Lives

by on November 8, 2018

“My sister died this morning, but I needed to be here,” the woman said out loud to a mixed group of strangers, acquaintances and friends. Twenty nine people went silent when one walked across the room and hugged her. Every chair was filled around six tables that formed a U-shape. A themed catered dinner was being warmed over small burners in a corner of the room. Husband and wife, Jeff and Bernadette, were holding their fourth monthly Soul-to-Soul book club. The title The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was the evening’s focus. The story inspired one devotee to custom-make six, miniature, bright red British mailboxes as table decor along with envelopes displaying 1940s postage stamp replicas that contained pertinent questions about the book. A few days later, Bernadette revealed to me that the woman in deep mourning came to the library as her life boat. Being an alcoholic, if she didn’t have this place, she was going to drive to a bar before attending her family’s wake.

People who use libraries crave camaraderie. The students who venture into the library seeking a place to study alone with earplugs, really come to be around the buzz of people. Then there are library visitors longing to truly connect, and connect on a deeper level. I have found that the library fills a gap created by social media and internet algorithms. Their information is tailored to be what you want, what you expect, and what you believe. A bubble is created around who you relate to best and what you click on most. Book clubs demand better. They are not tailored to fit one person’s views. Joining a book club is an entry point to overcome the obstacles of shyness. The simplicity behind gathering to talk about a shared story softens feelings of self-doubt. The book and its storyline are the vehicle allowing club members to listen, and be listened to. It is meant to expose feelings through difficult ideas and opposing viewpoints. While talking about fictional characters, real experiences bubble up to the surface. There’s an opening to relate first to the story and then to each other. There is no better way to spread great ideas then when people meet face-to-face. A book club is neutral ground, which makes it subtly powerful and influential.

In the decade since the Miami-Dade Public Library System’s Pinecrest Branch opened, we have grown a variety of book clubs. Some have weathered the years with a core group that consistently welcomes newcomers. Others were started and dropped by volunteers whose focus was too narrow and the appeal and momentum withered. This happened to the Astrology Book club, the Business Book Chapters Club, and a few start-ups by busy, well-intentioned parents that lasted one school year.

Our longest running one is hitting its ten year anniversary. I oversee A Good Book Book club, named by patrons back in 2007 when they sat in the lobby offering Misha’s Cupcakes to anyone who signed up. At the onset of each monthly meeting, instead of sweets I offer research. Come to my first Thursday’s book club and get three special treats: a video interview of the author explaining why the book was written, all of the next meeting’s books are ready for pickup, and no late fines.

Nothing succeeds like success and it can breed variety. Pinecrest Library offers The Historical Book Club for Children that explores world history through the eyes of favorite real-life characters; The Tertulia Literaria/Spanish Language Literature Book Club, which was founded by a retired Professor; The Proactivate Book Club, which explores ways to reach self-improvement goals, such as changing habits, cultivating resilience and increasing productivity for those seeking the best versions of themselves; and there’s Bernadette and Jeff’s Soul-to-Soul program which has upped the ante on how to mix inspiration with fellowship. The Todds knew that breaking bread with others quickly breaks down barriers. Their book club is for those who love inspirational reading and desire to authentically connect. The focus is on true stories that encourage and challenge. Based upon the warm and grateful feedback received, they are satisfying a deep need. If you are considering starting a book club, do it. A book club changes lives.