The Book Club of My Dreams Was at the Library All Along
When private clubs shut me out, I found the reading community I was looking for at the public library
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A successful book club needs three things to thrive: delicious food, decent wine and wonderful people. Only the first two, food and wine, are easy to find. It is the third element, the people, that is like a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces—something that promises to look like the pretty picture on the box, but which is so complex you may quit before it’s done.
Everyone in L.A. seemed to be in a book club, except me. I’ve never been invited to join one and every time I asked friends about their clubs I was met with responses like “We’re full,” or “It’s only moms from our school.” Once a friend told me her book club was “the absolute best,” but when I asked if they had openings, she told me, “I’ll give you the name of our moderator so you can start your own.” This reinforced my suspicion that book clubs were mysterious get-togethers for social types—and I didn’t fit the part. I’d see photos on social media of women gathered with wine and food, laughter and friendship. It all felt glamorous and out of my reach. Still, I kept angling for an invitation. I’d post books I was reading on Facebook: typical club picks like All The Light We Cannot See or Wild. Friends would like my posts and request my reading list, but no invitations landed in my inbox.
My yearning for a book club of my own came partly because I wanted to talk about books with someone other than my husband, who reads Moby-Dick and Thomas Pynchon in his spare time. My 20-year-old daughter and I read books more like what I imagine reading in a book club—sometimes we even read the same book—but it doesn’t scratch the itch. Recently, we both read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, a fascinating novel about Black twin girls, one of whom is light enough to pass for white.
“I liked it a lot,” is all my daughter would say about the book.
“Did you think Stella’s Black neighbor Loretta, knew Stella was passing?” I asked, thinking that since we are a mixed-race family my daughter and I might delve into this unusual topic. But before I could finish my question she was already on her phone, texting.
I wanted more than reading and liking a book at the same time. I wanted to analyze books, to hear perspectives different from my own, to push myself to read books I might not otherwise choose. I wanted to hear someone tell me why they found a complicated character despicable. I wanted to know why a certain plot twist worked for them but not for me. I wanted someone to understand when I said the writing was “lyrical” or why I felt the movement of time in a novel mattered. But my desire also came from my longing to be part of a group.
Being homeschooled until fifth grade and losing my mother when I was nineteen have made me feel like a loner all my life. I spend too much time trying to be part of groups that other people join so I can try to escape this nagging sense of isolation. As someone who never had a squad or a crew, a book club felt like it could be the way I’d find them. I’d thought about starting my own but it never happened. I wanted a real-life book club that met monthly and that I could count on to nurture my love of reading. Maybe I would even make a new friend or two.
My mom, who was Black, was a teacher who always asked the librarians to order books by Black authors and books that featured strong Black characters. I absorbed the difficult, brutal and inspiring stories about slavery, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the beauty of Black hair and skin from these books. It makes me sad that I can’t remember specific book titles or authors. But I can remember the way those books made me feel. My mom would talk to us about the books we read, helping us understand why it mattered to read books by Black authors. I loved seeing books through her eyes.
When my daughter was born, the first book I bought was the picture book Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, an African American writer. It stayed on her shelf until she was about 3 years old and I could read her the gorgeously illustrated book with its bright colors and gold foil-rimmed pages. The story is about a little girl who imagines herself flying from the roof of her tenement housing over the George Washington Bridge, the same bridge that her father had labored so hard to build. In the tradition of passing along books, I gave Tar Beach to a friend’s newborn, explaining its history in our family.
“I was invited to join an incredible new book club,” said Lauren, an acquaintance who is a literary agent. We were winding down after dinner at a mutual friend’s home, about eight women who’d known each other for years through our kids’ school. I didn’t know Lauren very well and this was my first time seeing her in a long time. I’d always thought she was aloof, but then again, I’d never talked to her for more than a few seconds. Maybe she thought the same about me.
It was as if Lauren needed to tell someone the news. It was an announcement more than a conversation starter. Her blond bob, pale gray cashmere sweater and tortoiseshell glasses made her look smart in a city filled with women who shy away from glasses because they’re too nerdy.
“That sounds fun,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Who’s in it?
“Major industry people,” she said. I’m from L.A., so I knew she meant the entertainment industry.
“It’s a hand-picked group,” she went on, saying it was started by the guy who produced just about every major movie for a big studio. “He hosts it every month at his home in the Hollywood Hills,” she said.
“Cool,” I said, nodding. “That sounds really interesting.”
“We have a lot of notable authors and creative industry people so the selection of books is carefully curated,” she said. “The discussions are intellectually stimulating, not just a bunch of people rambling on and on.”
I couldn’t help myself. “I’m reading Lincoln In The Bardo right now,” I said. “I’ve been looking for a book club to join.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted it. I should have picked up on Lauren’s tone as too reverential, too hushed. When she cornered me to extol the virtues of her new book club, she must have known she had something I wanted. Maybe my eyes lit up too fast. Perhaps I leaned in too close. I don’t remember the specific books she mentioned so casually; I only remember they were complicated books that were treated as prerequisites for being well-read, like Finnegans Wake or Infinite Jest—books I’d started and then abandoned. I’d played along, careful not to reveal my literary ignorance. She savored my reply as one does a decadent piece of chocolate cake, lingering over every bite, declining to share.
A small smile formed on her pink glossy lips. “This one’s private, but maybe there are other book groups out there,” she said. I glanced around the room, cringing inside, hoping someone would interrupt us. Nobody did.
“Great idea,” I mumbled. My face felt hot. “I’ll keep an eye out.”
Lauren looked at me, then looked at the front door. “It was nice seeing you. Say hi to your husband.”
I turned and walked back to the kitchen where the host was pouring someone more red wine. I gulped what was left in my glass. “Can I have a refill?” I asked.
I gave up on the idea of being invited to a private book club, so I joined Meetup in search of open book clubs within ten miles of my house. I decided to try a group in Silverlake, which was held at an independent bookstore with a coffee shop in the back. It was a group of about eight women in their 20s to 50s who had nothing in common except books. The host, Rosa-Lupita, was in her 40s with an outgoing personality, Cardi-B style pointed nails, and black hair with platinum highlights. Each month, she selected a book. For my first meeting, we read Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, about the late sister of President Kennedy. Everyone found the tragic story of Joseph Kennedy’s forced lobotomy of Rosemary shocking. Afterwards, Rosa-Lupita told us she was a Kennedy conspiracy theorist who’d visited the grassy knoll in Dallas where the former president was shot.
“I’ve been to the Grassy Knoll three times,” she said.
“Really?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yep. It’s the only way to figure out who killed Kennedy.”
“Who do you think killed him?” asked another woman.
“Definitely not Lee Harvey Oswald,” she said. “The shooter could have been the CIA or a foreign government but I’m researching it. I need to go back go Dallas again.”
The group was friendly, but there was no camaraderie. I moved on.
My next try was the Beer and Books Club. This one was packed with about 35 women gathered around tables that had been hastily pushed together in the backyard. There was a shortage of chairs. In my early 50s, I was by far the oldest. I felt out of place, although I’d been drawn to the club because the host listed We the Animals by Justin Torres as one of her favorite books. It’s also one of my favorites, a beautiful yet brutal story of a Puerto Rican family whose young narrator is gay and whose abusive father is homophobic.
“Hi, everyone,” said Natalie, the host. “I’m so sorry I didn’t get a chance to read the book this month.” With that she sat down, grabbed a beer and let the conversation wander.
“I didn’t read it either,” said another woman.
“Me either,” someone else giggled.
“I did,” a serious-looking 20-something UCLA student said. Like me, she seemed perplexed.
For a few more meetings I showed up, dutifully bringing beer and trying to help moderate discussions that jumped around and zoomed in and out, like someone trying to focus a camera lens. I think there was one meeting where the host read the book. Everyone mostly chatted about boyfriends and jobs. The books seemed to be an afterthought, and I don’t even like beer. I stopped going.
The next Meetup announcement looked dull: A book club sponsored by the West Hollywood Library. Women only, open to the public. There was nothing chic or glamorous about the notice. But the place seemed welcoming, like the public libraries of my youth where I found entirely new worlds introduced to me by a librarian who recognized a shy girl who read books beyond her years.
When I was a homeschooled 8-year-old girl, I considered Library Day the highlight of the lonely week. My mom would pack my younger sister and me lunches of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, along with an apple, and the three of us would walk from our house near the beach to the Venice Library, about four miles. As soon as we ran through the doors, I’d go straight to the reference desk, where I’d ask the librarian for recommendations. Since we were regulars, often she already had books selected for me. Some might have been too advanced for my age, but I loved being treated like an adult, encouraged to read big, weighty novels. After a few hours, I’d carry my books home, anticipating losing myself in Little Women, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Hobbit, Sounder and Black Beauty. I felt very grown up inside the building where books lived.
College introduced me to some of the most important voices in literature: Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joan Didion, and many more. At school, there were always friends who were eager to talk about books. Late into the night, we’d sit at a coffee shop or at one of our apartments to debate and discuss the stories and characters, plots and themes that came from the brilliant minds whose work we idolized. After graduation, as a staffer to an elected official, public policy discussions inevitably involved nonfiction books on complex topics like the minimum wage or gun control. Fortunately, my office colleagues were usually interested in analyzing the merits of a particular book and how it applied to our legislative work. Later, with two toddlers, I hit a reading slump, then stopped reading entirely. The next time I picked up a book, nearly four years had passed. I was annoyed at myself for letting one of my favorite pastimes slip away. I’d been reading to my babies, but not for my own pleasure. I felt guilty for failing to honor my mom’s legacy of reading to educate and enrich oneself. So, I went to the library and came home with a stack of books. I took the kids to the Chevalier’s on Larchmont, our local bookstore, and we bought so many books I ordered a new bookshelf. I started reminiscing about my college years when great books were too good not to share with friends. I wanted that same feeling again.
Since I was a kid, I’ve rarely been without a library card. It’s something that belongs in my wallet, like a driver’s license or credit card: another form of identification.
Those early years made any library feel like a welcome place—a place I can meander until I find what I’m looking for, where I can find quiet in a huge noisy city, even if it’s a city where I’ve never been before. When I worked in downtown L.A., I’d often spend my lunchtime browsing the multi-storied Central Library, eating lunch in the cafeteria with a book. Walking into the West Hollywood Library felt like greeting an old friend. It was a place I’d taken my kids when they were little. Now, at middle age, the library was a place where I found my books and my bookish people.
I walked into the West Hollywood Women’s Book Club on a Tuesday night, where the group met once a month at the recently remodeled library, a modern wood and glass building with an adjacent community room. I picked this meeting to attend because there would be a guest speaker instead of a book discussion, so I’d feel less nervous walking into a room filled with strangers. The speaker, author Natasia Deon, and I had met previously at L.A. literary events and I was excited to hear her talk about her new novel, Grace, a book about slavery that had already generated a ton of glowing reviews. The librarian, Kelly, moderated. Afterwards, Natasia and I hugged each other and I congratulated her on the success of Grace. I introduced myself to Kelly, a quiet intellectual with short brown hair, dressed in a pastel yellow cardigan and khaki trousers. On my way out, I checked out a copy of the next month’s book, Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo. Walking out of the meeting, I was elated: I’d found what I was looking for.
Month after month for three years, I’ve looked forward to the West Hollywood Women’s Book Club, where about 25 women of various ages and races gather to share our love of memoir, novels, short stories and essay collections. The youngest is in her early 30s and the oldest is 85. Most are in their 70s and wear big chunky sweaters, comfortable shoes and leave their gray hair uncolored.
I knew their favorite books before I knew anything else about them, but eventually I learned. There is Ella, a retired book publisher who relocated to L.A. to help care for her grandchildren. Her favorite book is Beloved. Cassandra and Patricia are retired teachers from a prestigious East Coast high school. Longtime friends, they too moved here to be closer to their adult children and grandkids. Cassandra obsesses over the writing of Joan Didion. Patricia’s favorite books are One Hundred Years of Solitude and Pride and Prejudice. Anisha is 30-something and recently made partner in a prestigious law firm. When she announced the news to the group, we broke into applause. One of Anisha’s friends brought a bottle of wine, which we sipped from tiny paper cups. Anisha probably reads the most even though she has a high-stress job. Her favorite book is Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Monica is an 85-year-old widow who lives in a Beverly Hills high-rise with a doorman. She wears chic designer clothes and accessories that elicit compliments from me and the other ladies. Monica has many favorite books, but The Great Gatsby ranks high on her list. Kenya is a nurse who reveals little about herself. She did share her favorite book: To Kill A Mockingbird.
The book discussion has also been interesting, but maybe more importantly, we’ve created a community. When Monica, posted on Meetup that she no longer felt safe taking Uber home to Beverly Hills late at night after the meeting I volunteered to give her a ride home. Every third Tuesday of the month, we linger in my car outside her condo, talking about our lives, sharing stories, talking about politics and laughing about celebrity gossip. Sometimes an hour flies by before we say goodnight. During the pandemic, we’ve talked on the phone weekly. We no longer need the pretense of the book as a reason to call. We simply miss each other’s voices.
I didn’t set out to join a library book club. Despite my love of libraries, the thought of sitting around with a bunch of strangers or even worse, weirdos and oddballs in a badly lit public space wasn’t for me. I wanted entry into the world of a private book club, filled with what I imagined were heady conversations about books followed by plans to get together socially. But instead of being welcomed by the private book clubs I sought, I was turned down.
The West Hollywood Library Women’s Book Club certainly doesn’t look the way I’d imagined a book club should look: a cluster of attractive people sitting on overstuffed sofas in a spacious living room, cashmere throws draped over their laps, eating brie and crackers, sipping a vintage red wine from the host’s wine cellar. My book club isn’t even private, a fact that caused me to question my yearning for those haughty groups that didn’t want me. As far as I know, there aren’t any “industry” people in it, something unusual for L.A., where the entertainment industry dominates.
Yet the purpose of my library book club is incredibly meaningful: to find connection among book lovers, avid readers who want to talk about books, debate a popular bestseller or dive into a classic. We show up for the books, the friendship and the community we’ve created. Kelly, the librarian, brings her vast knowledge of literature to every meeting. Our book club isn’t what I thought I wanted. It’s what I needed. Perhaps because it’s in a library, I felt welcome from the moment I walked in. And that’s what matters.
Libraries encourage solitude in the best way possible, but a library book club is designed for connection, laughter and a sense of belonging. The fact that my book club is part of a library deepens my gratitude for these public institutions which are home to what I consider to be the most exquisite prose I’ve ever read: Langston Hughes, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros, Moshin Hamid, Tommy Orange, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Amy Tan, Cormac McCarthy, J.M. Coetzee and always, always for eternity, Toni Morrison. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the West Hollywood Library Women’s Book Club went online. Sure, there were a few technical glitches, but we could hardly wait to discuss Red at the Bone by Jacquline Woodson. And, most of all, we wanted to see each other’s faces as they lit up our dark computer screens.
My book club has only once had wine, and the food usually consists of cookies from Trader Joe’s, served straight out of the plastic container. It lacks every element necessary to be posted on Instagram: notable members, freshly baked homemade desserts arranged on chic earthenware platters, expensive wine and beautiful people gathered in the warmly lit, cozy living room of a private home. But it turns out that of the ingredients I thought were necessary to a book club, only one—great people—really counts.