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Well Read: Inside Some of Boise's Oldest (and Most Private) Book Clubs

"Often, the [book titles] will have 'wife' in it."


As Elif Batuman observed, calling a book a "classic" has a way of making people's eyes glaze over. Batuman, author of The Possessed, was writing about Russian literature in particular--which may make her point more understandable to some people--but it's no lie that for many, reading the classics is like going to the dentist: good for you, but not terribly fun.

Of course, that's not true for everyone, and certainly not for 18 local readers--members of the Great Books Club, a Southwestern Idaho-based group that has been reading the literary canon for 42 years.

There are oodles of book clubs across the Treasure Valley, but many of them fizzle after a few years as members move away or become disinterested. One of the biggest challenges is keeping a cadre of friends interested in reading books not necessarily of their choosing, which makes the Great Books Club's success staying together for more than 40 years that much more notable.

According to members Kathie Corn and Ramona Higer, the group's curiosity about the literary canon--and gripes with the state of more recent publications--have helped keep it alive for the better part of half-a-century.

"I just find contemporary literature vapid," said Higer.

The group uses a reading list provided by the Great Books Foundation, curated by the University of Chicago, to push through long works recommended by the organization, as well as short stories and essays found in Great Conversations--collections of short works for sale on the Great Books website. So far, the group has read such titles as William James' Principles of Psychology, Essays by Montaigne, Tolstoy's War and Peace and "Father Sergius," and scores of short stories, essays, novels and nonfiction works. Members said they like how these books tap into the big issues underpinning society.

"I think that we're just a group of lit and theater people who want to learn about the world the way it is," Corn said.

For Corn, who graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in 17th century literature and worked as a teacher for 28 years, joining a book club focused on the classics stemmed from a curiosity about canonical literature not covered in her university education.

"It was a deep need, a hunger, to go beyond college," she said.

Every year, the group adjourns for the summer and re-convenes to discuss a long work in October. This year, the October meeting will take place at a member's home in McCall, but in the past it has been hosted by members at Redfish Lake, Ernest Hemingway's home in Ketchum, and Boise. To commemorate the centennial of World War I, this year members will discuss A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin.

The long-running group has also adopted the Great Books book club users' guide, which members said keeps meetings organized and has contributed to its longevity. The guide recommends that literary analysis of works discussed in book groups be verified with citations, and the margins of members' books are heavily annotated. Among the other recommendations, adopted by the Great Books Club, are the implementation of a formal, almost parliamentary, meeting procedure and a rule against talking about members' personal lives when discussing books.

"You aren't supposed to bring your personal life into it," Higer said, "but it always creeps in."

So far, the group has relied on the Great Books organization to provide it with a list of classical works, but individual members have differing opinions about what makes a book, essay, play or poem a "classic."

"It deals with the universal," Higer said.

"It grabs you. That's No. 1; No. 2 is it has to be well-written. I think John Steinbeck is the greatest," said Corn.

Rediscovered Books, in downtown Boise, keeps tabs on the reading lists of 49 book clubs across the Treasure Valley, stocking copies of titles and, occasionally, offering book recommendations and advice on how to keep clubs going strong.

Barbara Olic-Hamilton helps maintain a wall of shelves at the store featuring titles being read by local clubs. While the shop uses the wall--and a 10 percent discount for club members--to court clubs, it also provides a snapshot of the literature Boiseans are most interested in at the moment. That interest can rub off on non-club members, too.

"Travelers to Boise--they shop that wall," Olic-Hamilton said. "That has boosted our sales just by having a revolving book club wall."

The best book club titles aren't necessarily on the New York Times bestseller list, she added, which often leans toward pulpy, mass-market books meant for solo readers.

"Often, the [book titles] will have 'wife' in it," Olic-Hamilton said.

Rather, she said, successful club selections will be engaging, boast deep themes and be topical enough to spur discussion among members. Currently, local group A Book Club (at more than 30 years, the longest-running club Olic-Hamilton tracks) is reading TransAtlantic by Colum McCann, a historical novel featuring intertwining stories about pioneering transatlantic fliers Alcock and Brown, Frederick Douglass' 1845 trip to Ireland and the Irish peace process in 1998.

The wall also features titles being read by clubs using the web as a meeting place, like the Idaho Shakespeare Festival Book Club, which pairs its reading selections with plays being performed at ISF, including A Kiss Before Dying by Deathtrap author Ira Levin; Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo; and The All Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg, which features themes touched upon by Steel Magnolias.

Off the stage and onto the screen, the Boise Public Library is getting similarly innovative with its new group reading program, Book Chat, which is adding a new spin to the traditional concept of a reading group by asking members to read books relating to a monthly theme rather than focus on pre-arranged titles. For its July 8 meeting at BPL's main branch, members are being asked to read titles relating to their favorite television shows. Information services librarian and club organizer Heidi Lewis said she's reading Orange is the New Black, by Piper Kerman.

"It's interesting to see what happened when it became a TV show, and the drastic changes they made," she said.

By exploring themes and genres, rather than individual titles, Lewis said she hopes to invigorate the reading group by not forcing its members to read the same book. Instead, they'll explore ideas more abstractly, talking about themes, what makes a book a good read, and connecting literature to readers' lives.

"We're still workshopping the idea, but it'll be interesting to hear about the books [members] are already reading," Lewis said.