The Reinvention of the Modern Book Club: Now With More Beer

PBR Book Club

It’s a summery Tuesday night at the Eighth Street Tap Room in Lawrence, Kansas, and 15 or so men and women are crowding the cash bar to order Pabst Blue Ribbon and local IPAs before meandering out to the narrow patio with picnic bench seating. Most have 800-page tomes sandwiched under their arms, although a small handful have brought iPads or Kindles instead. It’s about 8:20 p.m., and the night’s just getting started. Jon Kaleugher, 25, a bearded, bespectacled writer who regularly elicits groans for his heavy-handed Faulkner references, calls everyone to order by chugging a PBR. It’s time to do this thing. It’s time to talk Underworld by Don DeLillo.

Jon is a member of PBR Book Club, a loose affiliation of musicians, artists, writers, adjunct professors, librarians, and journalists who found each other through mutual friends or Twitter and now meet up monthly to chat about literary fiction over cheap booze. They started meeting two summers ago at neighborhood bars in their Kansas college town — and they’re not alone. Kindred clubs are sprouting up from coast to coast to commune over weird, interesting, and difficult books with the help of adult beverages to loosen tongues and inhibitions.

While each group is unique, a few common threads bind them together: a penchant for pale ales and whiskey, a co-ed makeup, and an open-to-all ethos meant to attract like-minded book enthusiasts rather than invitation-only cliques. Above all, they share a longing to reclaim challenging books from institutions and situate them instead in rowdy bars and book-crammed lofts — the Third Space meeting rooms of a new generation of readers.

This summer I caught up with five boozy book clubs from Brooklyn to Seattle to find out what they’ve been reading and how they’re reinventing the literary gathering. What boozy book clubs meet near you? Let us know in the comments.

The Long Hard Book Club

Long Hard Book ClubThe irreverent intellectuals who meet around the dining table of their Bushwick loft to spar over notoriously difficult books. Photo courtesy of Ruth Reader.

City: Brooklyn, New York
Favorite read: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Would never read: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
On the web: Facebook: Long Hard Book Club, Twitter: @longhardbooks

Giovanni Serrano is inked up and down in literary tattoos: “Your children are not your children,” from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. Poppy flowers, a reference to John Donne’s Holy Sonnet #6, “Death be not proud.” A ‘Bananafish’ tree, from J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” He and his fiancée, Ruth Reader — both writers in their twenties with day jobs in journalism and advertising — are co-founders of the Long Hard Book Club in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. The two say they were jonesing for some regular writerly sparring, and a book club seemed like a natural choice.

The irreverently-named book club reads one long hard book over the course of three months, giving their 15 core members of recent Columbia and NYU grads, a Simon & Schuster editor, a New York Times reporter, a Russian lit scholar, a couple of designers, a couple of unicyclists, and a slew of hell-bent readers plenty of time to get into the text and meet with each other along the way. The group’s guiding philosophy is that literature should be pleasurable; their inspiration the bookish circles of Austen’s day who read long hard books and sat around gossiping about them, much like we do now with long hard TV shows.

At their first meeting about Moby-Dick around the dining table of Ruth and Gio’s Bushwick loft, an exuberant member opened with “Can we talk about how gay this book is?!” referring to the sort of anachronistically homoerotic relations between Ishmael and Queequeg throughout the first third of that book. Another member regularly gets so amped up that he breaks chairs — the first, a walnut mid-century chair, was salvaged with some wood glue; the second, a wooden deco-ish chair, was beyond repair. Ruth and Gio have since acquired a few heavy steel-framed chairs.

“We’re always looking for new faces,” Ruth adds, “so if you’re interested, come on by.”

 

Summit City Book Club

Summit City Book ClubThe bookish gem tucked away in a Midwestern art town at the highest point of the Erie Canal. Photo credit: Calhoun Street Soups, Salads, and Spirits in Fort Wayne, IN.

City: Fort Wayne, Indiana
Favorite read: This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
Most divisive read: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
On the web: Facebook: Summit City Book Club, Twitter: @SummitCityReads

Erin Williams is an assistant professor of English who remembers reading the first chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion as a four-year-old with her mom before they both agreed that life was too short to read The Silmarillion. As a newcomer to Fort Wayne, Indiana, last fall, Erin was impressed by how important the arts are to ‘Summit City’ — “like, we have Andy Warhol’s Mao at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, so we really don’t play.” She saw so much going on for theater, dance, visual arts, sculpture, street art, film, and music, but wondered what, if anything, was happening locally for literary arts.

Erin was chatting with her colleagues at a department meeting when she learned they’d been involved in a pilot of a radio book club that never took off. So she suggested: “What if we host something that’s less about having experts discuss classics and more about getting the whole city to give a crap about new, weird, interesting books?” Thus Summit City Book Club was born — and they’ve got merch to boot. Heidi Phelps at the Washington DC art studio Wayward Broad Studios created a logo that drew inspiration from Black Flag in honor of the book club’s DIY sensibility. Boom: T-shirts.

Summit City Book Club’s core group of ten or so teachers, grant writers, development directors, pharmacists, retirees, and grocery store clerks meets monthly-ish, as they feel like it, usually at a bar. Because they’re open to the community, they never know if they’re going to meet some new person at each meeting, which is what Erin says makes their club the best. Occasionally they veer into experimental territory, like having a Google Hangout with Lawrence, Kansas’, PBR Book Club for a multi-city discussion of George Saunders’ Tenth of December. With booze, of course.

It’s the one firm requirement of Summit City Book Club. The beer need not be fancy, but what with their proximity to Wisconsin, it does need to be at least as interesting as the books.

 

The Bushwick Book Club Seattle

Bushwick Book ClubThe bookish musicians who write and perform original music based on the books they (and their fans) love. Photo credit: Melissa Thompson.

City: Seattle, Washington
Favorite read: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Most divisive read: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
On the web: thebushwickbookclubseattle.com, Facebook: The Bushwick Book Club Seattle, Twitter: @iReadAndSing

Geoff Larson remembers living in Brooklyn with his Jazz group when his friend Susan Hwang invited him to her band’s show of original music inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. “I LOVE Kurt Vonnegut,” enthuses Geoff, “and decided it was not to be missed.” The band was the original Bushwick Book Club, and after that first show, Geoff was hooked. As a musician, he says it’s very rare to see an audience so fully engaged with what the performers are doing on stage. When Geoff moved back to the Pacific Northwest, he asked Susan for permission to transport the concept back with him. He had a hunch the book club would be perfect for Seattle, and she agreed. They were right.

Of the 100+ musicians in the Bushwick Book Club Seattle, about ten songwriters collaborate at a time to create and perform original music inspired by the club’s current book, while everyone else is also encouraged to read it. Geoff chooses books that he thinks both the songwriters and audience can connect to, with a goal to recreate the energy and connectedness he felt at that very first Vonnegut show. Now in their third season, the Bushwick Book Club Seattle has performed at just about every venue in town, including theaters, museums, libraries, schools, bookstores, and more. For their Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas show, inspired by the Hunter S. Thompson book, the performers were backed by a full 50-piece orchestra at Town Hall Seattle, a former church turned theater with huge ceilings and beautiful stained glass.

Every show also includes a drink special that fits the current book: “Kerosene” for Fahrenheit 451, “Turkish Delight” for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “Top Five” for High Fidelity. The club offers book-themed trivia during intermission, too, and fans can score T-shirts, music, buttons, tote bags, and more at the merch table.

The “I heart Books” T-shirts are particularly popular. “Wearing one of these is a fantastic conversation starter when cruising down the street,” mentions Geoff. “People in Seattle love talking about books, which works out great because so do I. The shirt don’t lie.”

 

Books on Tap

Books on TapThe multi-generational Chicago group led by two fearless librarians who bring strangers together over IPAs and paperbacks. Photo credit: Celina Preston.

City: Northbrook, Illinois near Chicago
Favorite read: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Most divisive read: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
On the web: Facebook: Books on Tap

In the Chicago area, you can hardly throw a stick these days without hitting a public library group in a bar. A few years ago, Monica Harris of Oak Park Public Library created Genre X, Chicago’s original book club in a bar. Shortly after, librarian Leah White headed up LitLounge, a dual-library book club offered by Skokie and Morton Grove public libraries. Now Leah and her intrepid co-host, Cathleen Doyle, lead Books on Tap for Northbrook Public Library at their local pub, The Landmark Inn.

Leah started Books on Tap a summer ago hoping to attract new and different faces to her library, alluding to a tendency reported by many public libraries to lose touch with some community members in that stretch between high school graduation and eventual parenthood. Trends like book clubs in bars, karaoke, and trivia nights are often symptomatic of public libraries’ larger initiatives to stay connected to young professionals in their communities.

Books on Tap’s 17 or so regular “Tappers” are men and women mostly in their twenties to forties, with their biggest crowd yet showing up to discuss The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. They’re happy to leave the reading list up to Leah, and she happily obliges, turning to resources like Book Riot, the Bookrageous podcast, and Indiebound for ideas. Everyone reads the same book together every other month, leaving alternate months open to talk about books in general, suggest titles to each other, and leave with even longer To-Be-Read lists. The Tappers also have fun swapping temporary tattoos, beer coasters, and stickers branded with the Books on Tap logo

Leah was stumped when asked what book the Tappers would refuse to read under any circumstances. “I truly believe they would get on board with almost any book I could throw at them,” she answered. “They never cease to surprise me.”

 

Books & Bars

Books and BarsThe entertaining book “show” produced by the Twin Cities’ best-loved pop culture emcee, pairing Minnesota nice with a refreshing bite. Photo credit: Meredith Westin Photography.

City: Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota
Favorite read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Most divisive read: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
On the web: booksandbars.com, Twitter: @booksandbars

Over a decade ago, Jeff Kamin could be found in Hollywood performing and teaching improvisational comedy at I.O. West and working as Danny DeVito’s production assistant. These days, he’s a higher up at Minnesota Public Radio, producing live shows at St. Paul’s historic Fitzgerald Theater and keeping his improv and comedy techniques sharp by emceeing Books & Bars, Minnesota’s biggest book club show.

Jeff has been the one constant during Books & Bars’ nine years, which typically draws about 80 audience members per show and meets three times per month — once in Uptown Minneapolis, once in downtown St. Paul, and once in suburban Chanhassen, home to Prince’s Paisley Park. Jeff works the room from a wireless mic for each 90 minute show, led by his research but going wherever the audience wants to go. He listens and reacts, using improv techniques and comedy to make things entertaining even for those who don’t know the book, and he says his bookseller, Emily from Magers & Quinn, is like his Questlove sidekick without the musical instrument. They’re going for a Conan meets Fallon type of vibe.

Among the perks of Books & Bars are the author appearances — Cheryl Strayed and video chats with Lev Grossman, Susan Orlean, and Jess Walter — and drink sponsorships, including Bell’s Two Hearted and Knob Creek. Jeff laughs, noting that the audience is usually “Minnesota nice” to visiting authors, until you read the #booksandbars backchannel on Twitter and see things getting ugly with truth. “We’re friendly,” he reassures, “but we have a satirical bite.” Over the years Books & Bars has seen hecklers, walk outs, wizard costumes, kickball teams, mixtape exchanges, a camping trip, and even one meeting in a Connecticut casino.

What’s next for the book club that’s done it all? Jeff would love to take the show national with an online stream or downloadables. “Podcasting might be next,” he adds.

 

*****

While they each read widely, all of the boozy book clubs I spoke with gravitate to books they feel are “worth reading” — books that are full, that have something to say. And even when split on whether or not they like a book, the clubbers enjoy each other’s conversation and different perspectives. There’s a serendipity, after all, in meeting strangers over a mutual love of books, with pale ales to help them cut loose over literary themes.

One mantra rang out loud and clear from each group of readers. “For many, the engagement with any long hard book tends to follow a pretty crappy pattern,” says Ruth of the Long Hard Book Club. “Forced to read big ass classics in high school and college, consequently nary an attempt to develop an adult interest in them.” While each club puts a different twist on reinventing the modern book club, the core yearning of these readers is the same — to read for pleasure, without guilt or judgement. They seek engagement with stories that can be hard to come by in the classroom, and situate them instead in dive bars and around dining tables, where the texts can live and breathe with laughter, irreverent jokes, original music, improv and comedy, strangers and friends.

At the end of the day, it’s really all about love of books. Just ask Geoff of the Bushwick Book Club Seattle next time you see him cruising down the street. He’ll be the one in the “I heart Books” shirt.

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