How do you get 35 women to agree on 11 books to read over the next year?
I belong to a remarkable book group, known as A.M. Lit (it meets on the first Friday morning of the month) and sponsored for 40-ish years by my local branch of the American Association of University Women.
You could say it’s a bit of an institution.
Like many of its members I initially joined thirty-odd years ago (yes, many members have been a part of the group at least that long!) when I had toddlers at home and desperately needed something beyond Sesame Street. Part of the charm back then was that we used to hire a local college girl or two to babysit our kids in the hostess’s basement or playroom while we discussed that month’s book over coffee upstairs. It was wonderful and the source of many of my earliest suburban mom friendships.
When I returned to a full-time job and was no longer free on the first Friday morning, A.M. Lit fell by the wayside. Fast forward a career later; when I retired, one friend who had remained active the entire time encouraged me to return. It was like coming home. Several women had remained active in the group the entire time, others had drifted off and come back as I was doing. And there were several great new friends to make as well.
But I digress.
Despite ample chit chat before and after each meeting, A.M. Lit is serious about discussing each book. A volunteer leads each each discussion, researching the author and reviews of the book. But this is all just background, because it’s the discussion that drives the group.
These women are not shy. They like it or they don’t and they say why. Because there is a collective body of shared reading history for many of the members, they often draw on that criticism to illuminate the current book and/or make their point. Newer members present yet another point of view. It’s always dynamic, never boring and I frequently come away with more on my reading list.
Back to the matter of book selection.
We choose a year’s reading list at the regular September meeting. Potential books are submitted ahead of time, then briefly recapped by their advocate at the meeting. The resulting discussion is a thoughtful, deliberate process, peppered by frank debate (“I can’t read one more book about WWII;” “This is a best seller we’ll all read eventually anyway; let’s not waste a choice on it here;” “That’s too many pages!” and my personal favorite: “I didn’t read this until after I recommended it; it’s awful and I’m withdrawing it.”).
This group purposely chooses titles that we know are going to stretch our reading interests and our minds. We don’t necessarily choose from the best seller lists and we often throw in a classic (All Quiet on the Western Front comes to mind. Not only did we like the book and enjoy a lively discussion, but many of us admitted we had somehow never read it before!) Not all selections are fiction. Last year we read The Boys in the Boat and Dead Wake. Both great reads; a number of us were surprised at how much we enjoyed them.
We winnow down the final choices by voting (hatchmarks next to each title listed on a whiteboard). Not surprisingly, with 30 or 35 people participating, it often takes more than one round of voting to get the list pared down to 11 choices. It’s not the Electoral College, but it works.
So, what are we reading this year? Redeployment by Phil Klay, Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan, Doc by Maria Doria Russell, The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks, Someone by Alice McDermott, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.
Many of us are in other book clubs, some more academic and some more social. But for me, A.M. Lit will always offer a benchmark.
So, what are you reading these days? I’d love to hear.
See you next time!