Book clubs have been popular for decades, and their roots run deep. American history is filled with tributes to the power of reading as a community activity. The earliest might date to 1634, according to journalist Audra Otto of the MinnPost. That is the year religious renegade Anne Hutchinson, on a ship headed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, “organized a female discussion group to examine sermons given at weekly services.” In 1827, the Society of Young Ladies was established in Lynn, Massachusetts, leading to “the formation of African-American women’s literary societies in cities throughout the Northeast, including Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Providence.”
Tri-Valley residents have long valued the written word. “The first explicitly cultural organizations to appear in Pleasanton seem to have been literary societies,” according to author Ken MacLennan in the book Pleasanton, California: A Brief History. At least one literary society was meeting in Pleasanton in 1880. A glowing article on Pleasanton in the San Francisco Call newspaper from April 1895 praised the town’s grammar school for several unique points including “a good literary society in connection with the school work.” When a prominent group of Pleasanton women created the Women’s Improvement Club in 1908, they aimed to improve many aspects of Pleasanton life. Their signature goal, and eventual achievement, was building a new town hall and public library building, which opened in 1915.
While members of the Women’s Improvement Club clearly supported reading, they might have been surprised by all the benefits of reading that research has uncovered. According to the South African College of Applied Psychology, “brain stimulating activities, like reading, have been shown to ward off mental decline and conditions such as dementia and even Alzheimer’s. One study found that people who read later in life have a 32% lower rate of declining mental abilities. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a state similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.”
Reading can also improve our brains in other ways. Literary fiction can help readers understand what others are thinking and make them more empathetic, according to research published in Science by researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano. “Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies,” they wrote. As this and other studies have shown, reading can help keep us healthy–and so can discussing our reading. One easy way to do that is by joining a book club.
If you are new to book clubs, know this: There are international, national, state, and local clubs to suit nearly any age group and any book fan. Like books and their readers, book clubs are diverse and many are available to join at no cost.
“People join book clubs for different reasons but I would say most often it is to share their love of books,” says Joyce Nevins, Supervising Librarian of Public Services for the Livermore Public Library, which hosts several book clubs. “Book clubs are a great way to find out about book recommendations. You can expand your horizons by discovering books you would never have considered reading and are outside your normal reading interests. And it’s a social activity that provides companionship as well as intellectual stimulation.”
Especially in Covid times, people are looking for ways to be socially engaged with others, and a monthly Zoom meeting on a shared topic is a great way to create a socially distanced bond with others, according to Susan Dickinson, who works in Technical Services for the Library Services Department of the City of Pleasanton and oversees the Pleasanton Online Book Club. “I love all the different viewpoints that a book club discussion can bring to a book.” Interested patrons should not be put off by stereotypes about the type of people who join book clubs, says Dickinson. “A book club is just a group of people who love to read. It is a low-key excuse to get together and talk with other people. There are no quizzes and no grades.”
The mission of the Andrew Luck Book Club is to build a team of readers of all levels. It is run by NFL football professional Andrew Luck, an avid reader who recommends one book for younger readers and one book for adults every month. Readers are encouraged to discuss the books on social media. The Goodreads website, which hosts book clubs in its Community category, is a popular place to find a range of online book clubs that cater to different tastes. Tri-Valley residents have several local choices as well now that most book clubs have migrated online.
The Pleasanton Library Online Book Club, for example, welcomes patrons aged 18 and older. The group’s first meeting of 2021 will be held on Thursday, February 4, at 4:00 PM to discuss Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Those interested in joining should email Susan Dickinson at SDickinson@cityofpleasantonca.gov for more information. The Livermore Public Library hosts three book clubs via videoconferencing: We’re Talkin’ Books! Club (fiction and nonfiction), Science Fiction Book Club, and Political Issues Book Club (nonfiction current events and politics). To join one of the library’s book clubs, email a request to email@example.com.
Dickinson recommends The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, and Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok. Currently the most popular book at the Livermore Public Library is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, according to Nevins. The novel follows identical twins of color, the decision of one to pass for white, and the impacts of that decision on their lives and those of their children.
Those interested in reading about other pandemics should try The Pull of Stars by Emma Donoghue or the classic A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, says Nevins. “If you’re looking to escape into a funny book featuring quirky characters, try The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion or Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.”
The Tri-Valley’s Towne Center Books are still open for in-person business and hosts three book clubs that meet online once a month. The General Book Club pick for January 2021 was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. The TCB Mystery Book Club pick was The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope by C.W. Grafton, and the Poetry Book Club pick was Only As the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems by Dorianne Laux. Those interested should email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the book clubs.
What kind of people join book clubs? All kinds, according to Nevins. “I find it interesting to hear that some book club members love meeting over Zoom and would like to continue meeting that way even after the pandemic is over. Others can’t wait to meet again in person. Also, you don’t always have to finish the book, or even read it at all. Some book club members are talkative, and others like to listen. The book clubs always seem to make everyone welcome and at home.”
For more information about the Pleasanton Public Library and its programs, please visit www.cityofpleasantonca.gov/gov/depts/lib/default.asp.
For more information about the Livermore Public Library and its programs, please visit www.cityoflivermore.net/citygov/lib/default.htm.
For more information about Towne Center Books, please visit www.townecenterbooks.com.