Book clubs offer opportunities for fun, friendship and flights of fancy
“You can find magic wherever you look. Sit back and relax, all you need is a book.”
— Dr. Seuss
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a child discovering Dr. Seuss, a teenager engrossed in a Harry Potter novel or an adult devouring a Dickens classic. Books have the ability to transport us to places we’ve never been.
And that’s where the magic lies.
“I like to say reading is the cheapest form of travel,” says Ed Berlin, co-owner of The Ivy Bookshop in Mount Washington with his wife, Ann, and business partner, Emma Snyder. “You can go to any country or any era, you can move forward and go backward. It opens a world you wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Perhaps it’s an eagerness for escapism that contributes to the popularity of book clubs these days. According to a 2015 report by BookBrowse, the online magazine for book lovers, 57 percent of survey respondents say they belong to at least one book club, from 33 percent a decade earlier.
“Reading is more of a solitary hobby, but being a part of a book club gives people an opportunity to exchange ideas,” says Berlin, a Baltimore native. “You can share the experience of reading with other people who you wind up becoming good friends with. Reading and book clubs are a form of intellectual recreation.”
For this article, Jmore spoke with members of four distinctly different book clubs around town. While members vary in terms of age, gender and literary affinities, all share a love of reading and an appreciation for the friendships and cerebral stimulation created by their book clubs.
For Amanda Shapiro, reading has always been more than simply a hobby. It’s a way of life.
“It’s something my father instilled in me. I used to watch him read,” recalls Shapiro, 38, a Pikesville resident and mother of two young boys. “Now, I like my children to see me reading. We even have ‘DEAR time’ – ‘Drop Everything And Read’ — when I set a timer and we read together for 30 minutes.”
Five years ago, Shapiro decided to share her passion for reading by co-founding a book club called Lit Chicks.
“Starting the club was something [my friend and I] always wanted to do,” says Shapiro. “At the time, I had a 1-year-old, and for new moms it’s a great way to tell your husband you have to go out.”
Initially, Lit Chicks had 10 members. Since then, it has grown to 17 women, ages 35 to 45.
“I was surprised so many people were interested in participating,” says Shapiro, a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “Not all of the women in the book club started off as big readers but now everyone is reading novels, which makes me so happy.”
Lit Chicks meets once a month, with members taking turns hosting the group at their homes. Typically, hosts serve light hors d’oeuvres and wine, and members come prepared with discussion questions.
While they don’t always get through all of the members’ questions, Shapiro says they always spend the allotted two hours talking about the selected book of the evening.
For Stacy Bekman Radz, a Reisterstown lawyer and mother of two, finding time to read can be challenging. But she makes time for Lit Chicks.
“I wanted to be a part of a book club so I could read interesting books and be able to discuss them with friends,” says Radz, 42, a member since the club’s inception. “I love being in this book club because it encourages me to take time out of my busy schedule to read. I also got the chance to meet and get to know some great people. We always have a great time, and we laugh a lot.”
Occasionally, Shapiro recruits an author to call in or video chat, providing an opportunity for the club members to ask questions and gain a deeper understanding of the book’s themes and the writer’s motivations.
“It’s been a lot of fun getting to speak to different authors and fascinating to hear what inspired them to write their stories,” Radz says.
Adds Shapiro: “We only speak to them for about 20 minutes, but it really changes our way of thinking. You realize a lot of fictional stories are based on real-life events in [authors’] lives.”
The club reads books from a variety of genres, from heavy topics such as the Holocaust to lighter reads like the pick for August — “When Life Gives You LuluLemons,” by Lauren Weisberger, who will video chat at their next gathering.
“I love making this happen,” Shapiro says. “You put so much effort into reading a book, it’s great to have a group of people to talk about it with and share the experience they went through reading it. I also like catching up with this group of women who I don’t always see otherwise.”
Sometimes, says Shapiro, the group also plans special events. “It’s a great way to bring a community together,” she says. “Last summer, we did a book club with our husbands and children. We discussed the book for a few minutes and then all hung out at the pool together.”
Rak Evrit – Only Hebrew
Since retiring from the faculty of Krieger Schechter Day School at the end of the 2016-2017 school year, Dafna Tasch and her KSDS colleagues have managed to stay in touch by starting a Hebrew language book club. All of the books read are written in Hebrew, and the group’s discussions are held entirely in Hebrew.
Out of the 10 women who participate, nine are either current or former KSDS teachers, and all but one are Israeli.
“We are reading books that are excellently written, at a very high level of Hebrew by young authors,” says Tasch, a Hebrew language instructor at KSDS for more than two decades. “They’re all original works by the next generation of young Israeli writers. When we read the books, we can see the developing of a new society in Israel. By discussing what’s happening in our homeland, we are able to get much more out of the book than just the content itself.”
Fellow club member Michal Reichman agrees. “Most of the books we read are current and allow us to keep up to date with what’s going on among Israel’s literary world,” says Reichman. “This helps us stay informed about the cultural changes taking place in the country.”
As the club’s lone native-born American, Rita Plaut says she “was looking for a way to keep up with my Hebrew after I retired. We started out by reading short stories, which enabled me to handle the task of reading in Hebrew. Also, as an American Jew, I believe it’s important for us to know our language. This gives me an inside look into Israel’s culture and society. I wish more Americans could do it.”
Since the group’s founding, the women have met three times. Their meetings have included time to catch up with each other over an Israeli-themed dinner. Then, they move on to a serious discussion of the assigned book.
“There is some homework, and we make sure we are really prepared for the meeting,” says Tasch. “It’s essentially us conducting a lesson for ourselves — like a class, with all of us participating.”
Because of the difficulty of obtaining original Hebrew works in the United States, the members read all of their book selections via an online application called Evrit, the first digital book venture in Israel. Most of the books they read have either won or been nominated for the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award. The book club only reads and discusses original works, not translations.
“When I moved to the United States, I made a point of reading books in English. I would even read Hebrew books translated into English,” says Alina Matz, a second-grade teacher at KSDS. “But when you translate a book, you don’t always get the nuances and politics that are going on.”
Books … and Beyond
Karen Marino and Helene Pokrywka grew up in New York, attended the same upstate New York college and are both dietitians. But it wasn’t until they moved to the same court in Owings Mills and joined the same book club that their paths finally crossed.
“I had been in a book club that was breaking up and wanted to stay in one,” says Pokrywka. “Karen and I talked about it and decided with the rest of the neighbors in the court to start one.
“That was 23 years ago.”
Nowadays, Marino and Pokrywka’s book club has 10 women. Over the years, members have come and gone, but the original group of four — none of whom are Baltimore natives — has remained the same.
“Our book club is more of a social activity, as opposed to an academic book club,” says Marino, who belongs to Beth Israel Congregation. “People come to socialize, even if they haven’t had a chance to read the book that month. It’s a way to get out for a night while giving you a reason to read.”
Marino says she has always liked reading, but without her book club she doubts she would have read as widely. Through the club, she’s explored literary genres she might not otherwise have experienced.
“Because we all pick the books together, and everyone has input on what we read, I have read so many books I never would have thought to pick up,” Marino says. “We read both fiction and nonfiction. My favorite is historical fiction.”
Every June, the women — who are all in their 50s — meet for dinner and make their book choices for the year. While their primary focus is books, sometimes they branch out to other modes of storytelling.
“Because we started the book club when our kids were little, it got hard to read that many books in a row,” says Marino. “Sometimes, we break up the reading with a foreign film and discuss that. In July, we listened to a podcast called ‘S-Town’ because it’s a new technology we hadn’t tried before.”
In August, the club will return to books, discussing “An Invisible Thread,” by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski. Other picks for this year include “The Man in the High Castle,” “The Rent Collector,” “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” and “Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century.”
“I’m not a reader on my own, and without the book club I would have read maybe five books in the past two decades,” Pokrywka says with a chuckle. “Thanks to the book club, I have probably read approximately 250 books in the last 20-plus years. I love the idea of discussing books because it really helps you think. Plus, it’s a way to meet people.”
For Couples (Mostly)
Book clubs tend to be women-only territory, but there are exceptions. For instance, Mary Jo Wiese and her husband, Ted, belong to a Baltimore-based, mostly couples book club.
“It’s incredibly interesting to read a book with my spouse,” says Wiese, who grew up in Ohio and moved to Baltimore when her husband began working for T. Rowe Price Investment Management. “We don’t normally read the same books, but this book club has given us the discipline of doing so. I love the conversations we have together before and after book club, as sometimes our discussions go well beyond the immediate meeting.”
Wiese recalls that the club grew out of a conversation she and her husband had with another couple way back in 1988.
“We were at a dinner for T. Rowe Price and were seated next to Kathy and Mark Vaselkiv,” Wiese remembers. “We were talking about how busy we were and that we weren’t reading as much. The men were working hard. I was working part-time and had a young child, and Kathy was expecting her first baby. There was a lot going on in our lives, but we hatched a plan to start a book club.”
Mark Vaselkiv considers himself a lifelong learner. “I care deeply about matters of justice and want to broaden my perspectives beyond traditional American worldviews,” he says. “I’ve always enjoyed reading significant books, especially nonfiction and sharing ideas with like-minded people. The different perspectives from this group have intrigued me — especially from the women of the group.”
Says Wiese: “I don’t know why there aren’t more co-ed book clubs. I really enjoy the fact that there are men and women in the club. It’s been very enriching and just a great experience.”
Today’s “mostly couples book club” includes 11 people — men and women from diverse religious traditions.
“Everyone in the book club is intellectually curious,” says Wiese, who belongs to St. Ignatius Catholic Community in downtown Baltimore. “I love the diversity and different perspectives. It’s an odd way to get to know people, but over the years we have become very close.”
Carol Zenilman and her husband, Jonathan, were invited to join the club when they moved to Baltimore more than two decades ago. Carol Zenilman didn’t know the Wieses at the time, but had lived next door to the Vaselkivs in New York City.
“I can’t imagine this group without the books,” says Zenilman, who lives in Mount Washington and belongs to both Chizuk Amuno and Beth Am synagogues. “We have learned a lot about each other’s cultures. At the time, it didn’t seem like book clubs were that big of a thing, and we thought it would be a fun and interesting way to socialize with people from different walks of life.”
The group meets four to six times a year — each time at a different couple’s residence. While reading books from all genres, the group leans toward nonfiction, discussing their book selections over potluck dinners.
“We try to tie the cuisine of the meal to the theme of the book,” says Wiese. “I like to cook, so I find that fun and challenging. We spend a lot of time discussing the books, but we also spend time socializing with one another.”
Currently, the group is reading “Manhattan Beach,” by Jennifer Egan. Some past selections include “Between the World and Me,” “And The Band Played On,” “Killer Angels,” “Hamilton,” “Grant” and “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.”
“After reading that book, we took a field trip to Gettysburg together,” recalls Vaselkiv, 60. “That’s been one of the most memorable experiences for me.”
Says Wiese: “The most memorable book for me was ‘Constantine’s Sword: The Church and The Jews.’ I grew up in the Catholic Church and our entire message in parochial school was about accepting others, so I was shocked to learn this history. It was very upsetting for me, and the kindness of the Jewish members of the book club was touching.”
Over the years, says Wiese, the couples have built strong friendships and have shared each other’s milestones.
“We have been to a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs,” she says, noting that being a part of fellow book club members’ religious rituals is something she “treasures.”
Wiese believes it’s the group’s bond over books that allows them to have candid discussions about occasionally difficult subjects.
“I can’t think of a single topic we have been unwilling to discuss,” Wiese says. “We all trust each other and can be really honest. I feel connected to the people in the book club.”
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.