Ridge Street Book Club, Fair Oaks, California
Recently I was talking to Sandy Briggs, the former Library Services Director of my hometown’s Carnegie Library, about her long-standing book club. She mentioned that they celebrated their 26th anniversary this past fall! I asked if she could share with Book Club Cheerleader.com readers about her club, and here’s what she had to say:
BCC: Sandy, your group has been meeting for 26 years! How did you get started?
RS: Ridge Street Book Club started in 1984 as a group of twelve young women who lived on Ridge Street in Fair Oaks, CA and desired a group of contemporaries with whom we could read and discuss literature. Of the original membership, four of the founding members (including myself) remain, and only two people still live on Ridge Street. The rest of us live in a three-county area (Sacramento, Yolo, and Placer) but we have past honorary members throughout the nation.
BCC: How many members does Ridge Street Book Club have?
RS: We generally maintain twelve members, all women, mostly in our mid-fifties; we have aged gracefully together. When we started, we were mostly in our twenties. We have occasionally had more or fewer than twelve, but twelve seems to work best.
BCC: Do you add new members to your group to replace those who leave? If so, what is your process?
RS: We add new members when existing members leave. There is no formal criteria or application process. A member generally proposes a friend that she personally knows who is a reader, and the club encourages the recommending member to bring her as a guest. After a few meetings of participation, the new person is assumed to be a member.
BCC: When and where do you meet? Do you take any breaks for the summer or other holidays?
RS: We meet monthly throughout the year, generally on the last Thursday evening at 7:30 pm to socialize and officially at 8:00 pm to have a presentation and discussion. In reality, it is more likely 8:30-9:00 before we actually begin the book presentation/discussion. We have a weekend retreat in September at Donner Lake where the schedule of presenters, books and hostesses is set for the next twelve months. There is no formal book discussion in December, but we get together one night for a potluck holiday party and book exchange. In addition, each member brings new children’s books which are later wrapped by the December hostess and donated to a specified charity. Recipients in the past have been Sacramento and Yolo County organizations that work with children in crisis due to violence or homelessness.
BCC: What do you eat and drink at your meetings?
RS: We always eat. Snacks and hors d‘oeuvres are served with wine and an assortment of non-alcoholic beverages. Food occasionally follows the theme of the book and ranges from simple to elaborate. For example, when we read Nine Parts of Desire, the food for the evening had a Middle-Eastern flavor. When we read the biography of Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson, the hostess provided an Alice in Wonderland tea.
BCC: Who leads your discussion?
RS: The discussion is lead by the designated presenter of the month. The presenter is responsible for researching and presenting information regarding the author, the reviews/reception of the book, cultural or historical perspectives, and a series of thought provoking discussion questions. The responsibility is rotational. Each member signs up for a month to host and a month to present. The presenter designates the book for the month to be read by the club members.
BCC: What kind of books do you read?
RS: Generally contemporary fiction; however, it is based upon the selection of the presenter. There are usually one or two nonfiction selections as well as occasional poetry, drama, and essays.
BCC: How do you choose your books?
RS: Each member chooses one book per year and makes the selection known at the September annual retreat where the reading schedule is set for the following twelve months. In reality, each member generally has several titles under consideration which are “pitched” during the retreat so members have input beyond their individual month of selection.
BCC: Do you use Reading Group Guides for your discussion?
RS: The use of reading group guides is determined by the presenter. We have frequently used Reading Group Guides , Book Browse, Random House Reading Group Guides, Book Spot or other publisher’s websites (Penguin, Beacon, Harper Collins, etc.)BCC: What were some of the best discussions or favorite books your group read?
R.S: Poisonwood Bible, Secret Lives of Bees, Wild Swans, Atonement, Middlesex, Kite Runner, Power of the Dog, Evidence of Things Unseen. We also have had three authors (Constance Warloe, Jennifer Traig, and Sue Bigelow) at our meetings to discuss their books.
BCC: How does your group stay informed between meetings, and do you keep records of what you’ve read?
RS: We have a designated “informer.” Originally, this person sent a monthly postcard and updated the annual reading calendar and membership data which was distributed in hard copy at the meetings. We made the transition to email distribution lists when the technology became available. Since everyone is currently inundated with emails, we currently have a private (due to privacy concerns) website that can be accessed with a password. The “informer” maintains and updates the website. I am the unofficial archivist. I published a membership and reading history on our 25th anniversary which has been transitioned to the website as well.
BCC: What responsibilities do regular members (those not hosting or facilitating) have to the group?
RS: Read the book and participate actively in the discussion.
BCC: How does your group deal with member issues such as missing numerous meetings, not reading the book, dominating the discussion or other book club faux pas? Do you have any rules, guidelines, or general practices around these issues?
RS: We do have written guidelines dating back to the 1980’s. As the archivist, I have a copy. They resurfaced once in the 1990’s as we redefined our purpose and expectations. In general, I do not think we are consistent in dealing with absences, dominating the group, not reading the book, and side conversations. However, like most associations that span decades, centuries, and millennia, we have developed a degree of both tolerance and compensation.
BCC: Have you ever asked someone to leave your group? If so, why, and what was the process?
RS: No, but we once had a negative group member who constantly complained. She was reminded that participation was voluntary, and she chose to discontinue her participation.
BCC: How do you keep things fun?
RS: They aren’t always fun; however, I always learn something (about an author, a book, a genre, a member or myself). Obviously, it is fun most of the time; however, I really truly like to know how other people respond (beyond a superficial level) to what they read. It is absolutely fascinating.
When we read The Secret Life of Bees, the club was encouraged to select and wear one of the fabulous hats from the collection of the presenter. We met once on Halloween with a costume theme to come as your favorite author or character. Some of the presentations are very elaborate with music, art, film, decorations, etc.
There are occasional interactive activities associated with the book such as quizzes, puzzles, games, etc. We do a book exchange in December where each member brings a wrapped book, and we draw numbers to determine the order of selection.
BCC: Do you get together as a group for any activities outside of book meetings?
RS: In addition to our annual retreat at Donner Lake, we also have attended plays, movies, author readings and book signings as a group.
BCC: Have you developed any group-specific customs?
RS: We have come to expect book marks from the exotic vacations of our membership (often book or author specific)
BCC: What do you enjoy most about belonging to your book club?
RS: I enjoy reading books that I would not necessarily have selected on my own. However, I have a deep connection with these women with whom I have grown up. Our shared reading history and the subsequent discussions have been among the most profound influences in shaping my intellectual and emotional growth.
BCC: What advice would you give to other reading groups?
RS: Have clear expectations regarding the purpose of the group and behavioral expectations. Designate a mistress of decorum to intervene and discourage cross-talking and side conversations that are disruptive.BCC: Do you have any amusing anecdotes to tell about your group?
RS: Collectively, we have grown old (if not up) together. Increasingly, we find that we have one good mind between us. It seems to take a group effort to recall the full details of any book or meeting or future plan.
Sandy, thanks for sharing your “secrets to success” for such a long-running group. May you have many more years together reading, discussing and celebrating great books!