My friend Marcelyn Ritchie has been leading a book group since 1977, beginning when she managed Waking Owl Books and continuing now as she works as a literacy aide and tutor at Edison Elementary School.
Ritchie leads with a strong hand, drawing up the group’s reading lists, which are focused around a theme, such as science or creativity or education, followed in alternate years by books about geopolitical history in regions such as Rwanda and Latin America.
A theme provides a focus and helps to narrow book choices. “It focuses me in a way that reminds me of college — without having to write a paper,” Ritchie says. “It stretches me beyond my comfort zone and challenges my world views. All reading does that, but shared reading holds you accountable.”
When the group read about the Balkans, for example, members were moved by Peter Maass’ “Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War” and lamented how they hadn’t been paying enough attention during the 1990s war. Several readers in the group have commented how much more interested they are in following international news because of the background and insight provided in the conversations sparked by the books they’ve read together.
But perhaps the real gift is the richness of the group’s ongoing conversations, which offer intimacy on a contained scale. “We may not know everything about each other’s personal lives, but we each remember moving things others have said in response to particular books,” Ritchie says. “We have laughed, cried, raged and commiserated together. Being able to reference this long, shared body of books makes my relationship with these people unique. No one else in my life shares so many books read in common — not my husband, my best friend or my mother.”
Ritchie’s book group is one of hundreds of private and public clubs that meet all over Utah, groups of friends or strangers brought together by their literary interests. Some programs are facilitated by local bookstores or libraries, such as the popular One County, One Book initiative of the Salt Lake County Library or the Orem Reads program. Book club practices and reading selections vary dramatically, with one significant constant — the mission of socializing around literary conversations.
That simple idea — how ongoing conversations about books change and shape our world view — is the backdrop for Utah Lit, The Salt Lake Tribune’s new monthly online book club. The digital form may be contemporary, but the effort is anchored in Utah’s long tradition of literary gatherings.
If all you know about contemporary history comes from pop-culture commentators, you might be forgiven for thinking Oprah Winfrey invented book clubs in the 1990s, with her popular televised interviews with her favorite authors. What Winfrey was particularly good at was using her literary passion to remind her viewers, mostly women, to read and buy books, local booksellers say.
Book clubs helped to civilize Utah and the rest of the West, says Layton publisher Gibbs Smith. After all, until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the Western territories were mostly considered a source of natural resources — such as minerals and timber — that Eastern companies extracted and exploited, using mostly immigrant labor. All culture was imported from New York.
“People here, of course, had interests and taste, but everything they thought of as cultural came from someplace else,” Smith says. Book clubs were part of the evolution of Western culture, the publisher says, because they prompted settlers to read and think about ideas.
For more than a century, Western readers have demonstrated that kind of passion for getting together to talk about books and “the promotion of mental culture.” That was the mission of the 24-member Blue Tea Society, which was founded in Salt Lake City by the wives of prominent Utah businessmen in 1875, part of a nationwide movement of literary societies.
Mormon women were banned from joining due to the controversy over polygamy, according to historian Patricia Lyn Scott, who profiled the society’s originator, Jennie Anderson Froiseth, the editor of the Anti-Polgamy Standard, in the Winter 2003 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly.
In 1877, some members of Blue Tea split off to form what became Salt Lake City’s influential Ladies’ Literary Club, which eventually grew to 500 members. The club made a “careful and systematic study” of world history, including Rome, Germany, France, Spain, England, Russia and South America, with a special study of early Florentine history from 1260-1531. Two Fridays per month were devoted to current literature, with “vivid sketches of their authors,” says Scott, quoting from a club history published in 1893.
Beyond its studies of Robert Browning and other authors, the influential group changed the course of Salt Lake City history through its public service. One prominent accomplishment was lobbying the Utah Legislature to pass a bill to raise tax dollars to fund a city library in 1898. Other efforts included supporting war efforts, funding scholarships for women and feeding the hungry during the Depression. The group included a lot of educated women who decided to improve themselves and then improve their neighborhoods, Scott says.
The group raised enough money to buy a club house at 850 E. South Temple, now owned by the Utah Heritage Foundation. “Having a building was quite uncommon” for women’s clubs across the country, according to Scott, who has been studying the group’s history for 30 years.
Also significant in Utah’s cultural history were the literary lessons in the auxiliaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, through the women’s Relief Societies and the Mutual Improvement Society for the youth.
And now, in these digital times, you can find literary passion on display regularly on Twitter and Facebook, as well in the lists of Meetup groups or locally posted reviews on GoodReads. Digital book discussions suggest there’s still something provocative and meaningful about reading in contemporary culture, says Catherine Weller, co-owner of Weller Book Works at Trolley Square.
“You know how people go on diets in January? People do the same thing with book clubs,” says Margaret Brennan Neville, who works at The King’s English Bookshop, where for 18 years she has led a book club that meets on the second Monday of the month. “It’s kind of like playing chess. It’s good for the mind.”
Adds Catherine Weller: “As long as there have been books, there have been gatherings of people who read them and talk about that.”