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In Westfield, Book Groups Are Part of the Social Fabric

Jill D'Ambrosio

Sunday, May 11, 2014 • 10:47pm

WESTFIELD, NJ – The table was set with flickering candles, finger foods, mugs cradling chocolate mousse and assortment of wines, as six women gathered for their April book group meeting at one member’s Forest Avenue home to discuss “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt.

After greetings and catching up, the group dived into discussion of the book’s dark nature and twisted plot involving two grisly murders at a rarefied Vermont college, creating a scene similar to many others in Westfield, where book groups have gained popularity in recent years.

“It’s a highlight of my month,” said Lynn Burke of her club’s monthly gathering.  “It’s a motivator for me to read a book once a month, which I don’t think I would do otherwise.”

Memberships in book groups are hard to quantify, but local bibliophiles say book groups in Westfield are thriving and have become an important part of the social fabric.

Jennifer Schulze, head of adult services at the Westfield Memorial Library, believes readers seek connection and new ideas and opinions about books when they join book groups.

“I think younger populations are joining book group discussions,” Schulze said, adding that many readers want connection with other readers and enjoy hearing new ideas and opinions on a book. “You get so much more out of it when people come in with their own ideas and expectations.”

Burke belongs to a mother-daughter book group in town. The seventh-grade girls in that group research questions, plan the evening and lead the discussion. Recently, members read “The Book Thief” and watched the movie together.

Kathy Hanlon, a mother of three, is in the mother-daughter group with Burke and a separate book group for adults, as well. She and her 13-year-old are avid readers, and she appreciates being able to see what her daughter’s peers are reading.

Hanlon recalled a discussion of "Lord of the Flies" during which the girls made their own connections about the effect of charismatic leaders on those around them.

“They were connecting the dots,” she said. “It kind of brought things up without them feeling like they were being lectured.”

Burke emphasized how much she appreciates spending time with her daughter.

“I think particularly now, at the age of 13, that we’re just grateful that our kids, our girls are willing to hang out with their moms on a Friday night,” she said. “We’re all believers in reading.”

Bringing Neighbors Together

On a recent rainy afternoon, Alice Dillon hosted several members of the Cowperthwaite Book Club to discuss “Under the Wide and Starry Sky: A Novel,” by Nancy Horan. Comprised of residents of Cowperthwaite Square townhomes, the group has been together since May of 2011.

“We just were kind of waving neighbors,” said Dillon, who raised seven children in Westfield. “I think we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better, in an easy way.”

“It’s a very dynamic group when we’re all together,” said Mary Lou Nolas, a retired schoolteacher.

Members keep tabs on each other outside of meetings, recently sharing news of an older woman who was injured after a fall.  

“Usually book groups start because you’re all mothers of little kids or you all live on the same street or go to the same church or go to the Y,” said Anne Laird, owner of The Town Bookstore, one of Union County’s last independent book stores. “To be honest with you, I think it’s a social outlet for a lot of people.”

Laird has about 10 local book groups registered at her store. She offers a borrowing service to book clubs, allowing a member to take a copy of a book or two to show others before returning it. She also offers a 20 percent discount for purchases of six or more copies of a book.

Laird admits she received more book group business before the proliferation of e-readers, but also believes that many readers still “prefer to touch, to feel” a book.

For groups on a budget, Westfield’s public library offers book kits—blue canvas tote bags filled with multiple copies of a book that clubs can borrow and distribute among members. Schulze rotates the collection of kits from time to time but some classics, such as “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier and “A Movable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway, remain.

“Just because a book is a bestseller doesn’t mean it hits the book club circuit,” she said.

A fan of history, Schulze believes that works of non-fiction tend to be overlooked, so she tries to encourage these choices for book groups. She recommends books such as “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Schulze also runs a book group at the library. She has tried to bring more men into the group with books such as “Defending Jacob” by William Landay and “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed.

“I strive for variety,” she said.

For more about Westfield Memorial Library, click here. For more on The Town Book Store, click here.

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