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Book Club Boom

The pandemic has seen renewed interest in local book clubs on Zoom.

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If, as former First Lady Laura Bush once said, the power of a book lies in its ability to turn a solitary act into a shared vision, the Literary Virginia Book Group is focusing its shared vision on helping Virginia writers find new audiences.

For Nan Carmack, the director of library development and networking at the Library of Virginia, her a-ha moment happened after attending her first Library of Virginia Literary Awards. The annual awards are held in October to honor Virginia writers and celebrate their contributions on the state and national level. “I thought, wow, we should be engaged with these amazing books," she recalls."[So] I asked permission to form a group."

The first iteration of the Literary Virginia Book Group met in June 2018. Her goal was to highlight the award show and its impressive talent as a way of keeping Virginia authors “on the top of the shelf.” She also wanted to connect with different communities by reading titles set around the state as a way of making those areas come to life for unfamiliar readers.

“The most important [aspect] was to help readers explore the complexity that is Virginia,” Carmack says. “Reading creates an environment of empathy from which we draw when we encounter a situation, person or environment we’ve read about.”

Once the award finalists are announced, her job is to craft a schedule of reads, alternating non-fiction and fiction finalists and winners. April, being national poetry month, is devoted to a poetry round-up, when the group examines the works of the poetry finalists and the winner. The group covers ten books a year, taking a break in August.

Joining the club is as easy as obtaining the current book and joining the monthly book discussions. The Library of Virginia offers loaners to book groups that don't require a library card, while cardholders can check the books out from the Virginia authors' collection. The local public library is another option.

“Read it and just come!” Carmack insists. “Sometimes, people haven't read the book but still enjoy the conversation, although they must agree to suffer the spoiler alerts that ensue.”

Literary Virginia Book Club member Karen Franklin believes that, at its best, a book club challenges its members to expand their understanding of the world. “I’m a true extrovert, so it’s energizing to be around people and be exposed to new ideas,” she says. “Sometimes these interactions also confirm what I believe and help me to express myself better. I’m a member of two other book clubs and this one has given me the confidence to suggest a wider variety of books in the other groups.”

Carmack moderates the discussions. Pre-pandemic, the group was meeting exclusively face-to face and during the height of the pandemic, it met solely online. The current model is a hybrid one, so that people can join either via Zoom or come to the library in person.

“We begin with a general round table discussion, and I always prepare some additional questions and content to supplement the book,” she explains. For example, when they read the New York Times bestseller “Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island” by Earl Swift, she had a YouTube video queued up of people speaking the English dialect that is spoken in Tangier, “as well as a crab dictionary,” she adds.

When the featured author is available and can come – usually about 70% of the time - they join the group about 45 minutes into the discussion to allow the group to talk freely before benefiting from the author’s insight. Carmack asks each author to share the "birth" story of their book and then each member can ask a question. Participation varies by month with some discussions attracting as many as 30 participants, although the average is about a dozen people.

The discussions can have a profound effect on group members.

For example, when the group read Tressie McMillan Cottom's collection of essays titled ‘Thick,’ a reader who was white and older came to her afterward in tears. “She said, ‘I simply had no idea. There are no words,’” Carmack recalls. “That’s what I mean by creating empathy and living through the pages. For this person to realize that even as an acclaimed college professor, Cottam still lost her baby to dismissive health care was a step towards understanding and maybe even a change in behavior.”

Not all of the book discussions weigh so heavily, with many resulting in moments of humor. “One time, we had someone from another group meeting down the hall come and ask us to pipe down because we were laughing too loudly,” she says. “Honestly, some of our best discussions come from books we hated.”

Most club members agree they especially enjoy the meetings when the author joins them. “Hearing the story of the evolution of a book, the author’s creative process, and their experience of developing as an author has provided additional insight and enjoyment to my reading experiences with the group,” explains member Dale Holcomb. “Also, Nan invests a great deal of time providing the group additional research, background, and access to reviews and criticism of books we read. That contributes a lot to the quality of our meetings and discussions.”

Next up on the Literary Virginia Book Group’s agenda is “Nine Shiny Objects” by Brian Castleberry on Jan. 12. Castleberry's science fiction novel, written as a series of linked chapters from multiple perspectives beginning in the late 1940s, moves forward in 5-year increments, essentially serving as a mirror to the reader and the culture. February’s focus will be Chip Jones’ “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South” (featured in an award-winning Style Weekly story from 2020), which promises a robust discussion of the racial disparities that were pervasive in the medical field during the 20th century.

When the group hosted a discussion of James Horn's “1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy,” it attracted a much larger than usual audience. Carmack thought there might be interest in another book group that focused specifically on nonfiction and a second group, the Common Ground Virginia History Book Club, was launched by senior reference librarian Becky Schneider.

That group’s focus is on nonfiction about Virginia history and culture and other genres such as poetry and true crime. Schneider’s intent is to choose books that are compelling and exciting to discuss. The group meets monthly on Zoom, a choice that allows people from across the state to attend. Pre-registration is requested for each meeting, but there's no need to formally join the group. “People are welcome to drop in whenever they see a book that interests them,” Schneider says.

For its Jan. 18 event, the Common Ground Virginia History Book Club is changing gears a bit with a discussion of “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver. “This local food memoir had a big impact when it was first published and is about to celebrate its 15-year anniversary,” says Schneider. “We're excited to reflect on what's stayed the same and what's changed when it comes to conversations about agriculture and food justice in Virginia.”

Whether it’s laughter or tears that result from book discussions, Carmack emphasizes the value of people coming together over a shared book since the pandemic has changed so much of our lives and daily habits. “Book groups help people share, connect and build empathy during any time, but even more so since the pandemic,” she says. “Since we cannot be out on the streets living our own lives, we can explore the lives of others between the pages.”

The Literary Virginia Book Group meets in person and via Zoom on Jan. 12 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad Street. The Common Ground Virginia History Book Club meets virtually on Jan. 18 at 6 p.m. Zoom link for meetings at lva.virginia.gov

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