A Shared Love of Books
How book clubs around the western suburbs are satisfying the thirst for knowledge, adventure and conversation — while facilitating friendships and community
Clio's Chroniclers at Century & Sleuths Book Store in Forest Park
Love of books brings Angela Krischon to the atmospheric Oak Park Brewing Co. on a frosty winter night. “I just devour them,” says Krischon, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher. “I love to travel, too. I think it’s along the same lines. It’s an escape to somewhere else.”
Nine other women, nearly all in their 20s and 30s, join Krischon, the organizer of the Oak Park Book Club Meetup, at wooden tables crunched together. Resting before each of them is the same book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely
Fine by Gail Honeyman, an acclaimed novel about a troubled woman who finds herself.As the book club members greet one another and get settled, something unexpected occurs. A hesitant young woman, clutching a book, approaches. “This is the book club?” They nod. But the woman spies the books on the table and pulls the book she carries away from her to show its cover: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.
“Oh, that’s the Oak Park Library group,” says one of the seated women, pointing to another knot of people also at the restaurant. “We’re the Meetup book club.” Another woman adds, “I think there are four book clubs that meet the second Tuesday of the month somewhere in Oak Park.”
Here, There and Everywhere
One might expect Oak Park, known for its writers and educated populace, to be a haven for book clubs. But the small town of Geneva has 60 book clubs connected with its library. Elmhurst has 45 to 50. Barrington Library surveyed its district and discovered an astounding 75 book clubs. Of course, some books clubs exist entirely independent of libraries, so these suburbs actually have more book clubs than the numbers cited.
“The demise of the book has been greatly exaggerated,” says Kathy Strange, a reference librarian at Clarendon Hills Library. “The most frequent question I get is, ‘What to read next?’ ”
Book clubs fly under the radar in the suburbs. It’s easy to spot the crowds at malls and multiplexes. It’s also easy to assume that Chicago is the area’s monolithic cultural hub. But in fact the western suburbs have a vibrant, if underground and underappreciated, literary scene, small pockets of culture and community nurtured in book clubs.
Book clubs are varied. Many are run by circles of friends or neighbors, who are embracing longstanding bonds. Or they are organized by new moms eager for respite from their children; churches corralling like-minded congregants; nonprofits bringing together patrons; devotees of specific genres such as mysteries, science fiction or romance; and, often through Meetup.com, random people, some of them newcomers hopeful of making friends or others simply interested in connecting with people on a deeper level than, say, a card club or a bowling team.
For book club members, reading and talking with others about what they’ve read may be the whole story, plain and simple. But something else often goes on, too. It has to do with change — changing oneself, one’s community and perhaps even the world. Books are a gateway to different worlds and novel ways of thinking, and book clubs galvanize people, wrench them out of their comfort zones and lead them, emboldened, to unchartered territory.
In Clarendon Hills, book clubs dot the small town, like pegs on a pegboard. Somewhere in town, day and night, someone is reading for a book club. Recently, the Circle of Voices book club at Community Presbyterian Church dove into The Story of Arthur Truluv by Oak Park resident and national bestselling author Elizabeth Berg. The Clarendon Hills Moms Club tackled Beartown by Fredrik Bachman. The 60514 Random Reads took on The Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda.
The clubs cater to various age groups. The Kay Carlson Discussion group in Clarendon Hills, named after its founder, has been together for nearly 45 years. Its members range in age from the 70s to the 90s. New at the library is a book club for younger readers focusing on young adult literature. The suburb of 7,000 has at least 15 book clubs. “We have lots of readers for a small town,” says Strange. “It’s lots of young moms. It’s a night out, a social thing. It probably goes back to Oprah.” Promoted on her TV show, Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, begun in 1996, is widely credited with igniting a resurgence in reading and book clubs. Talking about books in small groups actually dates to 18th-century England, where upper-class women, generally disenfranchised, hosted salons and invited men to discuss issues of the day. In the United States, book clubs took off in the 1920s when the economy boomed and women gained greater freedoms. Interest then picked up steam again in the 1950s with a surge in college graduates and the popularity of Book-of-the-Month Club selections. Today, an estimated five million Americans belong to book clubs.
Book clubs are an easy draw. “Why do sports fans like to talk about sports? It’s the same thing with books,” says Strange. “People who read books want to make a connection with people with the same interest.” The typical book club has eight to 10 members, more often than not female, meets in a home and samples wine and cheese, or perhaps zucchini bread, while discussing fiction. The Legacy Ladies Literacy Society (see pages 34 – 35 for a sampling of area clubs), eight elderly women who live near one another in Glen Ellyn, fits the mold. “We gather in each other’s home and walk only a few steps to our meetings. We like that proximity, especially in the winter,” says Ginni Kent.
The Glen Ellyn club finds interesting ways to make the books come alive. They read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and Erik Larson’s Dead Wake before hearing the authors speak at the College of DuPage. They read Into the Beautiful North by Luis Urrea (the bestselling Mexican novelist who now lives in Naperville and teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago) and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto before watching the stories performed at the 16th Street Theatre in Berwyn and the Lyric Opera House, respectively.
Other book clubs decidedly break the mold. Coordinated by the DuPage County Animal Services, the Page and Purrs Book Club reads books related to animals and allows members to meet adoptable dogs, cats and rabbits. Biz Books Reviews, run at Wheaton Library by business and career coach Vickie Austin, discusses business books, both classics and current bestsellers, for entrepreneurs, executives and employees. The Book and Cookie Club at Naperville Library is a child-and-parent book discussion group. “It’s fun for kids to read the same book with their family and with other kids,” says Deanna Donovan of the library. “It also offers shy children a safe place for speaking in public.”
No age group, even the smartphone generation, is immune to the lure of books. The GenLit book club, organized by the Indian Prairie Library in Darien, appeals to 20-and 30-somethings and meets at popular restaurants such as Home Run Inn and The Patio.
Book clubs also are popular at schools. The Montini Book Club at the Catholic high school in Lombard began this school year when two students asked English teacher Sarah Pittenger to start one. Ten to 15 students meet twice monthly. The students “really run the discussions” and the meetings are “fun and lively,” says Pittenger, who makes a pot of tea for the gatherings. They’ve read the thriller A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Jay Anson’s Amityville Horror.
At least one school club serves a higher purpose, signaling the import of books in young lives. Last year Hadley Junior High School in Glen Ellyn began a book club for 12 girls who are immigrants or were refugees. After they read How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child, they connected with the author Sandra Uwiringiyimana on social media. Incredibly, she then traveled from New York to lead their book circle.
A Tool for Change
Book clubs can be a vehicle for social change. Or personal growth. Just ask Mary Blanchard, a longtime Downers Grove resident and co-leader or member of book clubs organized at Anderson’s Bookshop in Downers Grove.Blanchard grew up on a dairy farm in a small town in Wisconsin. “It was isolated. With books I could be engaged with people around the world without being able to get out into that world,” she says. There was no library nearby. But she selected the books she wanted to read from a catalog, and the library system delivered the loaned books to her at no charge.
Blanchard works in sales, but she finds time to read. A lot. In 2015, she read 100 books. She also had become close friends with Kathleen March, the children’s manager at Anderson’s. Neither can recall the approximate date or circumstances of their first meeting, but both are certain their relationship began with books. “We both love to read,” says March. “We probably first met at the bookstore. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.”
The two co-led a book discussion group called How to Raise a Resilient Child. The suicide of a student at Downers Grove North High School, which Blanchard’s son attended, was an impetus for the formation of the group. “When you deal with children, it can be hard to broach a sensitive topic,” says March. “A book is very non-threatening. When an issue comes up within the context of a character, it’s easier to talk about.”
The group met for one year in 2017. Among the books on the reading list was Unwritten Rules: Real Strategies to Parent Your Child into a Successful Adult by Adam Russo. “It was really cool to see parents come into the group and share ideas with each other,” recalls Blanchard. Adds March, “The biggest response was ‘thank you.’ While I knew on the surface what was going on with kids in our community, to see these parents who had no idea where to turn leave with hope, with ideas and feeling better, has been the biggest thing.”
Offering book clubs with a societal focus was a decision that came after the 2016 presidential election. “We used the book club not just for a social connection. Post-election, we were looking for way to start a conversation,” says Blanchard. “So many people are buried in their own little world. After the election I realized things were not as I thought. I realized democracy is a process of engagement. But people are disengaged.” Blanchard’s preference for books dealing with societal issues also stems from her family life. Her adopted son is from South Korea. A sister is married to an African-American. A brother had married a woman from the Philippines.
The bookstore’s Whole Story Book Club, begun in June 2017, delved into wider social concerns. Books read included Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, national bestseller Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond, My Underground American Dream: My True Story As an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive by Julissa Arce and The View from Flyover Country by journalist Sarah Kendzior. Blanchard’s personal choices were similarly socially conscious. She read only nonfiction in 2017 and then began to read books by authors of color. “I didn’t want to read anything frivolous,” she explains.
The latest book club at Anderson’s is How to Raise a Global Citizen. Books will cover topics such as refugees, Muslims and LGBT rights.The special clubs of the bookstore regularly draw a dozen or so readers. Crowds reached their highest not long after the election. The sessions were worthwhile, says Blanchard. “It was a real productive use of people’s time. You can go out into the community with a better understanding of the issues,” she says.
The Downside of Clubs
Lanny Ori, 81, a book club discussion leader since 1968, recalls a group she led not long ago that weighed in on the main character in a nonfiction book who she believed was clearly an admirable, praiseworthy person. But he was gay, and not one of the 20 women in the club sympathized with him. “A lot of people have preconceived notions. They want their beliefs to be reaffirmed,” says Ori of Lake Barrington. Trained years ago by the Great Books Foundation, Ori is paid to lead groups.
“Book clubs can be wonderful. They can be terrific,” says Ori. “But some people don’t want to make a meaningful connection with the most important issues of the day. It can be exhausting to get them to focus on the larger issues.”
A Club of Their Own
The host of each meeting of Spirits and Books club chooses the beverage, be it scotch, bourbon, bourbon-aged beer or whatever, and begins the informal chat about the beverage before diving into the book discussion, moderated by someone other than the host. Some of the members are teetotalers. All 10 are men. They formed their own club after attending their wives book club.“They did not invite us back — for reasons unknown,” says Bill Barron of La Grange Park with a smile. Still, the “rejection” was like not being called back for another date, says Barron, still grinning. “It would be hard to have a group of 20,” he adds.
The club reads all manner of books (see sidebar). The club is non-political and the President is rarely mentioned. But books written about days long past or days that never came to pass echo contemporary issues. The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman and David Emanuel Hoffman, set in the Cold War, dealt with Russian spies. The Plot Against America, written by Philip Roth in 2004, is a nightmarish alternative history novel in which anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt for president in 1940.
“The book deals with fundamental issues our country is experiencing today,” says Barron, 68.A retired doctor who was a patient safety activist at Loyola University Medical Center and elsewhere, Barron has found a new passion in books and the book club. “I never read for personal enjoyment. I was so darn busy reading scientific literature,” he says. “I read all kinds of books now. I’m a person addicted to learning. If I’m bored, I’m dead. This has provided a nice foundation for my life.”
Books and men — it’s a way for men to connect with others. “I go to the gym and talk to people there. But that’s not a place for deep conversations,” says Barron. “Men don’t really have social outlets for serious dialogue.”
Back in Oak Park
After drinks are delivered and entrées are served, the discussion gathers steam for the Oak Park Book Club at the Oak Park Brewing Co. Angela Krischon, as the coordinator, raises questions about the main character that draw a flurry of answers. “Can you emerge from a childhood trauma unscathed?” she asks. Somehow, no one talks over anyone else. Comments are followed by nodding of heads, laughter or smiles of recognition. College basketball games drone on from the overhead TVs, but everyone’s attention is on one another.
Eleanor Oliphant and the other characters in the book are sized up as authentic, relatable, emblems of common experiences and purveyors of everyday happenings. “I think a lot of things she (Eleanor) thought, I’ve thought,” says Krischon.
The meeting ends and the women disperse into the night. Another book beckons next month. The world often can seem so finite and limited, but books always promise more
A Sampling of Local Book Clubs
Named after the muse of history in Greek mythology.
Meeting site: Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, Forest Park
Normal attendance: 12 to 15
What is read: History and biography
Last book read: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Upcoming book: The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
Loved: A trilogy on Winston Churchill
Memorable moments: An old East Indian brass bell is rung when members get off track.
Midwest Chesterton Society
Founded in 1979. The focus is on English writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
Meeting site: Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore, Forest Park
Normal attendance: 15
Group description: Artists, moms, lawyers, scientists, students.
Loved: The Defense of Sanity, a collection of Chesterton essays
Last book we read: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Memorable moments: When the group hosted people who knew Chesterton
The Game’s Afoot
Founded in 1997
Meeting site: Clarendon Hills Library
Number of members: 10 to 12
What is read: Mysteries, crime fiction
Loved: Monkeewrench by P. J. Tracy and The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. “Who doesn’t love Flavia de Luce, the most precocious 11- year-old you will ever meet,” says Barbara Stepina.
Memorable moments: Several Chicago mystery authors have given presentations at the library.
Spirits and Books
Meeting site: Members’ homes
Number of members: 10
Group description: The vast majority live within two miles of one another in or near La Grange Park. Their children went to school and/or played sports together. Diverse backgrounds including healthcare data analyst, firefighter, newspaper plant worker, business consultant, cybersecurity expert, stay-at-home dad, lawyer, doctor and painter.
What is read: All categories of books
Loved: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. “The subject matter had immediate relevance to frightening political events of the current day,” says Bill Barron of La Grange Park.
Did not like: Rise: How a House Built a Family by Cara Brookins. Says Barron, “Poorly written. The prose was clumsy. The story was far from believable.”
Noir in a Bar
Organized by La Grange Library
Meeting site: La Grange restaurants
Number of members: Six to 10
What is read: Sci-fi, thrillers, literary fiction, magical realism, graphic novels.
Loved: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a sweeping gothic mystery set in post-civil war Spain.
Legacy Ladies Literary Society
Founded in Glen Ellyn in 2010
Number of members: Eight regulars
What is read: Fiction and non-fiction. Current and classic books.
Upcoming book: The River of Doubt by Candice Millard
Loved: March by Geraldine Brooks. “The beautifully written and imagined story of Mr. March, the absent husband in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, portrays poignant characters confronted with moral challenges during the Civil War,” says Ginni Kent.
Didn’t like: Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. “We had a rollicking book bashing,” says Kent.
Organized by Indian Prairie Library in Darien
Meeting site: Restaurants
Number of members: 10 to 15
Group description: Young adults in their 20s and 30s
What is read: A wide variety from nonfiction to graphic novels and everything in between.
Loved: The Circle by Dave Eggers. “The predictions for the futures of internet-based corporations and social media was spot on,” says Karen Stein.
Last books read: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Books and Brews
Organized by Geneva Library
Meeting site: All Chocolate Kitchen in Geneva
Number of members: Four to seven young adults in their 20s and 30s
What is read: Young adult fiction.
Loved: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Elmhurst Neighbors and Newcomers Book Club
Meeting site: Members’ homes
Number of members: 15 to 20
What is read? Lots of historical fiction
Loved: Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale
Readers Night Out Book Club
Organized by Naperville Library
Meeting site: Quigley’s Irish Pub Number of members: Six to 15
What is read: Nonfiction, fiction, short stories, poetry — anything goes.
Latest books read: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck, Dry by Neal Shusterman, The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
New Moms Book Club
Organized by Wheaton Library
Last meeting site: Dry City Brew Works in Wheaton
Number of members: Seven to 12
Last book read: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Upcoming book: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
KB Nonfiction Book Club
KB is short for King Bruwaert, a retirement community in Burr Ridge
Number of members: 10 to 15 residents of King Bruwaert
Last book read: Red Notice by Bill Browder
Upcoming book: Bomb Power by Gary Wills
Loved: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
KB Book Club
Also at King Bruwaert in Burr Ridge
Number of members: 25. A few members with poor vision listen to the book.
What is read: Fiction but also biographies, classics, nonfiction
Last book read: News of the World by Paulette Jiles
Loved: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. “The writing was wonderful. The author’s character development was so well done, and the historic accuracy was very much appreciated,” according to Adele Mayer and Eileen Hands.