Reading with a purpose

Book clubs act as a social and intellectual outlet for Juneau residents

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Fifteen years ago a group of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s came together at the now defunct Women's Resource Center to discuss books written by women. The group, which now consists of women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, still meets on a monthly basis, and is one of the longest-running book clubs in Juneau.

"One of the reasons why people joined is because they wanted a life of the mind," said Terri Lauterbach, one of the four members of the original group who are still members. She now hosts the group's monthly meetings in her house.

There is no official count of book clubs in town, no one organization that oversees them all, and no real definition of what a book club is. Most groups meet on a monthly basis, though, pick a specific book for each meeting and are organized around a love of reading and a desire for intellectual discussion.

Carol McCabe, director of the Juneau Public Library, said the one thing book clubs in Juneau have in common is a love of reading.

"Books are definitely not on the way out," she said.

Membership in a book club has two main advantages, McCabe said.

"I think it gives a real depth to your recreational reading and to your informational reading ... and it's a social thing, too," she said. "I don't see nearly the same social ramifications of something I read until I talk to someone else."

Debbie Reifenstein, a co-owner of Hearthside Books, which offers a 20 percent discount on book club books, estimates Juneau has between 15 and 20 clubs. The store orders extra copies of books registered by representatives of local book clubs.

"It's a way for us to discount good books to our customers," Reifenstein said.

There are several mother/daughter book clubs in Juneau, several children's clubs, a club composed mostly of teachers and administrators from Juneau-Douglas High School, clubs organized by churches, clubs that read only women authors, clubs that read only classics, and clubs that read whatever looks good.

Lauterbach said her club chooses books written by women as a way of supporting women authors, but there is no one theme to the books they choose.

"Most books were written recently, but we've read some classics, like 'A Room with a View,' " Lauterbach said. The group, which meets for two hours at least 11 times a year, reads novels, books of poetry and nonfiction.

Kelly Hopson, a counselor at JDHS, gathered a group of people employed by the high school two years ago to start a book club of her own.

"I had some friends in them down south and I thought it would be great up here," she said.

The group has been composed solely of women, an unplanned situation but one that has been welcome by many of the members, who appreciate the break from their families and work.

Unlike Lauterbach's group, which reserves all of the meeting time for book discussion and book club business, Hopson's club spends part of its monthly meetings socializing.

"We spend the first hour or so eating and visiting, and then discuss the book during the second hour," Hopson said. The group begins its discussion by having each member give a thumbs up or thumbs down to the selected book. After that, it's a free-for-all.

"We meet for the social interaction and to see each other's opinions," Hopson said.

McCabe of the Juneau Public Library said she thinks interest in book clubs has gone up in recent years partly because of improvements in the publishing industry.

"There are so many high-quality paperbacks available now, and it used to be just a hardcover market for high-quality fiction," she said.

McCabe said library staff can help book clubs get started and give them support once they're established.

"We tried buying all of the books for interested clubs at first, but now we don't have the money to do that," McCabe said.

The library provides a free public place for meetings and a good advertising mechanism for groups looking for more members or individuals looking for a club. Library staff is available for advice, too.

"We're happy to help people choose books," McCabe said. "We'll hook you up with a staff member who is in the acquisition side of things and knows all the latest stuff as it starts out."

Reifenstein said clubs seem to be choosing slightly more nonfiction this year than usual. Two popular choices are "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" by Eric Schlosser and "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Some books that clubs choose year after year have strong female characters, such as "The Red Tent" by Anita Diamant, "Ahab's Wife" by Sena Jeter Naslund and "The Bonesetter's Daughter" by Amy Tan.

"They're just good books," Reifenstein said.

Christine Schmid can be reached at

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