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October 28, 2008

Boston Celebrates National Reading Group Month

Posted by carol
This past Saturday in Boston, bibliophiles gathered to celebrate National Reading Group Month, an initiative of the Women's National Book Association. One of the featured authors, Deborah Noyes, shares with us what happened at the event. Deborah is the author of the novel Angel and Apostle, which imagines the life of Hester Prynne's daughter, Pearl, from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

Tomorrow Shannon McKenna Schmidt will report on a National Reading Group Month event that took place on Monday evening in New York City.

To celebrate National Reading Group Month (NRGM) in October, the Women's National Book Association (WNBA) again this year sponsored nationwide events from Seattle to Nashville to Boston.

Authors originally scheduled for the Boston chapter event last weekend were Joan Anderson (The Second Journey); Ann Harleman (The Year She Disappeared); Jennifer Haigh (The Condition); Judith Nies (The Girl I Left Behind); Dr. Gina Ogden (The Return of Desire), and me, Deborah Noyes (Angel and Apostle). invited a recap of the event --- held Saturday at Hotel 140 in Copley Square --- from an author's perspective, so here goes:

Though the line-up was originally six, in the end we were three: myself, Judith Nies, and Dr. Gina Ogden. First, authors mingled for snacks and informal round-table conversation with about twenty attendees --- many both WNBA and book-group members (some belonged to multiple reading groups: one I chatted with cited membership in three, including a Jane Austen group and a "recent reads" variety where the goal is to showcase an array of independent choices --- a new trend? --- rather than a single majority choice).

Laurie Beckelman of WNBA Boston began with a heartfelt plea to support indie booksellers and applaud the unique role of reading groups in the culture. At a time when fewer people are reading for pleasure, thousands of groups gather nationwide to discuss current and classic books. She cited some startling statistics: an estimated 20-25% of some bestselling titles are bought by reading group members; the average book group member reads eleven books a year for discussion and another 39 for pleasure; the average member also gives a dozen books annually as gifts. All of which, she said, is good news for independent booksellers. One of the last remaining indies in Boston-proper (another startling statistic, to my [local] mind), Village Books in Roslindale, was on hand for this event.

After Laurie introduced the three of us, I summarized and read a passage from Angel and Apostle; Judith discussed her political history and memoir The Girl I Left Behind: A Narrative History of the 1960's and How Women Transformed America, recounting her adventures as a speechwriter on Capitol Hill during the Vietnam War; Gina, whose most recent book is The Return of Desire, drew on three decades as a sex therapist to argue passionately for women transforming their sexuality at any age (her work-in-progress, by the way, is The Best is Yet to Come: Women Talk about Love, Sex, and Aging). She also spoke eloquently on the topic of sex and spirituality.

All three of us have visited book groups and at least touched on this experience (in my case, more in the prediscussion....I know I shared this favorite anecdote: I was invited last year to a wonderful book group discussion of Angel and Apostle in Cambridge where the hosts offered up homemade vegetable soup; nice enough in itself, but they'd also, spectacularly and laboriously, removed from the pot every pasta letter but "A"!) Judith noted how much she's valued feedback and postings on --- as well as made key contacts via --- community sites like Gina likewise benefits from hearing real women at reading groups respond to the experiences of the real women (and men) in her books.

Our presentations ranged quite a bit but converged in the open question-and-discussion portion. Here the larger group touched on everything from how do you inhabit the narrative voice of a 17th-century woman --- the re-imagined daughter of the fictional Hester Prynne, that iconoclastic "fallen woman" --- to gender equality in the workplace to the evolution of Women's Rights (are young women today as politicized as they should be? how are the challenges different than when Judith came of age professionally in Washington?) to why, with all the other advances, women still aren't free to "own" their own sexuality (that stubborn taboo) without having any number of words that, in Gina's words, "can't be spoken aloud on public radio" attributed to them.

So... a relatively small and intimate group... but our discussion was wide-ranging, congenial, and provocative --- what any good "reading group" hopes for.

Thanks to the WNBA and Laurie Beckelman for organizing.

---Deborah Noyes