Speaking Volumes

Southside book clubs find novel approaches
to reaching new audiences

By Jason Hathaway

Ever since the first books were published, readers have gathered with friends and colleagues to discuss them. In 17th century France, Paris socialites hosted salons, lavish parties where men and women would share gossip and discuss politics, philosophy, literature and other cultural topics. Around the same time in England and colonial America, book clubs evolved out of women’s Bible study groups.

One of the most notable was led by Puritan woman Anne Hutchinson in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1630s. The popularity of Hutchinson’s group, which thrived on deeper analytical discussion of weekly church sermons, eventually raised the ire of the colony’s clerical leaders, who ultimately banished her to Rhode Island in 1638.

The most prominent source of the modern-day book club boom, however, is Oprah’s Book Club, started by talk show host and media magnate Oprah Winfrey in 1996. Oprah’s Book Club provided a list of reading selections each month, inspiring thousands of women across the country to read more or even start their own book clubs.

“When Oprah started her book club, book lovers said, ‘Oh, wait. This is a thing now. Here’s an excuse to have a party once a month, and we’ll already have something to talk about while we’re there,’” says Amy Dalton, adult services librarian at the Johnson County Public Library White River Branch, host of the Monday Night Book Club.

Book clubs offer readers a chance to experience books both solo and as a group.

“You get to see the story through that many different eyes,” says Center Grove resident Karen Lunsford, a member of the Monday Night Book Club. “It just makes the story more meaningful and the characters richer.”

Growing the audience

There are plenty of options today for book lovers who want to meet with like-minded people and discuss what they’ve been reading, but sometimes one of the big challenges is attracting a broader range of ages and genders to meetings. For example, since book clubs have long carried the stereotype of being a social outlet for middle-age women, turnout from male readers is often low.

Last year, “BookBrowse,” an online magazine for book lovers, surveyed its readers about their reading activity, including book clubs. Of the more than 3,600 responses, 80 percent were older than 45, and 93 percent were women. To dig deeper, the magazine conducted a follow-up survey of 130 male readers. One-third of the men surveyed had negative opinions about book clubs, such as a dislike of the books that women’s groups were reading. The bulk of the men said they had never considered joining a book club and that if they did join a book club, they would like it to have a mix of men and women and read from a wide variety of genres. About half of the respondents wanted to meet in a public place, such as a library, instead of someone’s home. Dalton and other Johnson County librarians took note. Book club hosts said they are working to create new book clubs that have a broader appeal.

“We have been trying to draw more male readers by building on the social aspect of our book clubs and offering new meeting places, such as microbreweries and wineries,” Dalton says. “It’s always important to pick out a book that more people can relate to.”

One of JCPL’s book club success stories of late has been the Stout Stories club, which meets the first Monday of every month at rotating Johnson County microbreweries, such as Greenwood’s Mashcraft Brewing Co. and Bargersville’s Taxman Brewing Co. Attendance averages around 18 people and is more balanced between the genders, says host Erin Cataldi, adult and teen services librarian for JCPL’s Clark Pleasant branch.

“We actually have quite a few men show up at our meetings, which contrasts the stereotype of book clubs being a women’s thing, but I think the lure of the beer, wine and other drinks helps,” Cataldi says. “We’ve had guys in their 20s and 30s and even some senior citizens, so it’s a mixed bag.”

Other southside book clubs have also had success using venues that specialize in fine food and drink. Beyond the Book, an independent club organized through online event site Meetup.com, meets the third Monday of each month at Craft & Cork, a Greenwood DIY art studio that serves craft beer and wine. Greenwood Public Library this year introduced Well Red, a club that meets the second Wednesday of the month at Vino Villa.

“There are several public libraries across the United States that are now hosting book clubs in brewpubs and wineries, so it really is a hot trend right now,” says Well Red host Susan Jerger, a reference librarian at Greenwood Public Library. “I’m looking forward to seeing how our attendance averages out. It would be great to have 10 to 15 people regularly. You don’t want to have too many people show up, though, as it could be hard to include everyone in the discussion. It’s easier for the shy people to hide when the club gets too big.”

At the JCPL’s Novel and Film Discussion, which Dalton and Cataldi host at Franklin’s Historic Artcraft Theatre, participants discuss movies that are based on best-selling books, toggling between text and movie clips. Seeing both the literal and visual interpretations often gives people a greater understanding and appreciation of the story.

“For those who have only seen the movie, it’s good to read and discuss the book that it’s based on,” Cataldi says. “Or they’ll see the movie after reading the book and say, ‘Wow, it makes so much more sense after you see it on screen.’”

If readers have a specific genre that makes their hearts quiver, southside libraries offer plenty of book club options for readers who prefer to focus on specific genres. Greenwood Public Library, for example, has the Mystery Book Club for mystery lovers and I Heart Ya, an age 16-and-up club for fans of young adult literature. JCPL provides an even larger variety, with clubs like Rockin’ Reads (music-themed books), Pizza & Pages (young adult literature) at the Clark Pleasant Branch, Selected Shorts (short stories) at the Trafalgar Branch and Military Reads, a military-themed book club set to debut at the Franklin Branch in April.

Beyond the page

Book club regulars often build lasting friendships with each other and enjoy the opportunity to discuss books and current events with like-minded individuals. Many regulars load their calendars with several book club meetings each month. Readers are only limited by their availability and how many books they can read in a month’s time.

Greenwood resident Kelley Cope is a regular at the JCPL Monday Night Book Club and a book club held the last Monday of the month at the Indianapolis Public Library’s Southport branch. She says book clubs have helped broaden her reading list.

“I like how the clubs get me to read books I normally wouldn’t read and come out of the discussion enjoying those books even more after hearing everyone’s opinions,” Cope says. “You really do come away with a great appreciation of the book after discussing it.”

For Karen Lunsford, book clubs have long provided camaraderie and a pleasant release from the more technical text she reads as a tax preparer. “I started participating in book clubs to branch out,” she says. “It’s been an easy commitment because a lot of the people here are so nice.”

The book clubs are rewarding for the hosts. “I just love the interactions, sitting back and watching people who don’t really know each other talking about a book,” Cataldi says. “It just builds a good sense of community.”

For those looking to join their first book club, organizers recommend going in with an open mind on the material and showing up, whether you have read the book or not.  “Just come on over,” Jerger says. “Even if you haven’t read the book, you might enjoy the atmosphere of the venue and make some new friends.”


Book clubs abound on the southside

Ready to join your first book club? Southside book lovers have an advantage with three public library systems within driving distance. Johnson County Public Library offers 12 book clubs between its four branches and library services center; Greenwood Public Library hosts five book clubs. The Southport and Franklin Road branches of Indianapolis Public Library host a book club or two each month. And each of the libraries offers monthly bags of popular paperback books for independent book club discussion.

In addition to having multiple copies of popular club books available for loan, the Johnson County, Greenwood and Indianapolis public libraries offer a variety of book clubs, hosted on and off site.

Broaden your book club search even more on Meetup.com, where you’ll find book clubs not associated with any libraries, such as the popular Beyond the Book club, hosted on the third Monday evenings of the month at Craft & Cork in Greenwood.