[This piece originally appeared in the Arlington Advocate “Open Book” column on 1/30/14.] Normally cake is verboten in the conference room, but this month we made an exception when the Robbins Library Book Discussion Group met to celebrate their twentieth anniversary–and to discuss The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald. Founded by former Robbins librarian Nancy Gentile and facilitated for the past eighteen years by devoted volunteer and book-lover Ann Honeycutt, the group has discussed well over 200 great and not-so-great works of literature.
There are twenty-eight active members, five of whom are original members. New members are welcomed with a brief orientation in which Honeycutt emphasizes “This is a group that likes to discuss books.” Believe it or not, this doesn’t count as stating the obvious since many book groups are more like social clubs.
One might wonder how a book group of twenty-eight manage to choose books, let alone discuss them. Every November a Reader’s Choice form is distributed to all members, who recommend four titles each. Previous titles are sent out in a spreadsheet via email so there are no repeats. As facilitator, Honeycutt abstains. She categorizes the titles based on their availability in the Minuteman Library Network, and determines the final selections and the month in which they’ll be read. Books that are recommended by more than one member are given extra weight. The end result is a list of fiction and non-fiction books on a variety of themes, enough for a year’s worth of reading.
Which titles have inspired some of the best discussions? In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, and the third book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter meeting was unusually special due to an 8-year-old guest speaker, the daughter of a member who enhanced the discussion with expert knowledge of the series.
When asked for the secrets to maintaining a long-running book group, Honeycutt cited the importance of securing the sponsorship and support of a library or similar organization that can provide a comfortable, reliable space in which to meet. Robbins staff also worked with the group from the beginning to make sure that copies of the next book on the list were available so members could simply check them out on their library cards at the end of the evening. Another simple tip: use name tags. Twenty-eight names is a lot to remember.
Beyond good planning and name tags, an atmosphere of acceptance is all-important. That means members listen quietly while someone speaks, refrain from criticizing others’ viewpoints, and respect each others’ views and opinions. With values like that along with strong leadership, it’s easy to see how the Robbins Library Book Discussion Group made it to twenty.