The Pinetree Drive Good Neighbors Book Club, as conceived in 2007 by two good friends, was unique in design by most literary standards. Instead of reading and discussing one common title per month, the residents of the short street would be invited to read whatever they liked and convene monthly to present their choices via spontaneous oral book talks. My friend and I wanted to connect with our neighbors over books, but without the rules of a typical book club, namely, without a pre-determined reading list. Simplicity was our goal. No tedious book selection process. No record keeping. No discussion leader. No work required of anyone other than the monthly host in whose living room we would gather to enjoy wine, snacks, and mini-book reviews. We thought we had a good solid plan.
In theory, our model would expose us to a greater cross-section of books and ideas than if we all read the same title—one solution to the problem of “So many books, so little time.” It would touch the heart of what leisure reading is about—the serendipitous pleasure of discovering a book that feeds a burning or latent curiosity—one that others may not share. We led busy lives. We didn’t want to sacrifice our precious little reading time on prescribed titles at the expense of books we really wanted to read. A rule-free format would also eliminate the inherent difficulties of agreeing on a book list to satisfy everyone’s reading tastes.
Right away at the first planning session, the founding committee of two worried that such a simple model would be too loosey-goosey for those who liked more structure. In accordance, we developed a set of twelve suggested genres as a guide. Club members would be free to read any book of choice within each month’s genre, or choose from outside the genre list, which would alternate between fiction and non-fiction through the year as follows. Plan B:
Good Neighbors Book Club Genre Guidelines
Jan NF Self-improvement
Feb F Classic
Mar NF Nature, wilderness, environment
Apr F Southern author
May NF History
Jun F Contemporary
Jul NF Memoir, letters, bio, auto-bio
Aug F Historical
Sep NF Cultural, international, political
Oct F Mystery
Nov NF Wildcard
Dec F Wildcard and book exchange
At the first full meeting of neighborly women and men who had expressed interest in a book club, strong and differing opinions surfaced about the proposal. One person feared readers wouldn’t attend a book club that committed to no single title and questioned the point of getting together without a common book. Some agreed, some did not, and a compromise was born. The genres would remain intact, but the attendees of each meeting would select by consensus a specific title within the respective genre to be read the following month. We kept the option to read and report on any book, while offering a particular title for those who wanted it. Plan C. The first book the group endorsed was The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Some liked it, some didn’t, but all agreed on one thing of importance. Participation in the Pinetree Drive Good Neighbors Book Club should involve no guilt. One could read any book, even feel welcome to attend without having read anything, for the purest pleasure of seeing one’s neighbors and listening in on the book talks. All went home happy, and for a couple of years, the club operated smoothly. Our short discussions and mini-reviews were lively.
Presently, a murmur of dissatisfaction began, suggesting that the books weren’t selected by consensus at all, but by the reader who presented the most enthusiastic argument for a personal favorite at a meeting, and that, often, old publication dates made the books hard to find. Furthermore, some readers wanted the titles to be named earlier than one month ahead, in case of a long wait at the library. Eventually we agreed to search online best-book lists for more readily available titles within each genre, and to create a ballot on which the membership could vote for a year’s worth of reading.
The “no-guilt” policy prevailed. If you chose not to follow the proposed reading list, no problem. We even added the term to the club’s already long name. Everyone professed satisfaction, despite the loss of simplicity. This compromise meant someone must compile the ballot, write blurbs about each book so as to give voters an informed choice, count the votes, copy and deliver the new book list to street-side mailboxes—tasks that fell to me, the club facilitator. While the goal of simplicity was fast disappearing, and few took advantage of the option to report on a different book, the extra effort was worth the rewards of invested membership and focused discussions.
After two years of the revised Plan D, attendance began to decline. A polite rumble hinted that the internet searches generated a list too academic in nature, that a more popular selection would attract more people. Another discussion resulted in a new arrangement, Plan E, whereby each host would choose the book to be discussed at her/his house, thereby ensuring a more relaxed mix of titles. The genre list was dropped, simplicity restored, and the book talk remained vibrant.
This system worked well for two more years, until another dissatisfaction arose that the membership did not have enough say in the choice of books. Discussion. Compromise. Plan F. This time a committee would create the book ballot, not by searching online, but from titles submitted by members, meaning lots of e-mails, followed by finding and distilling short blurbs about the books submitted for the ballot. It was a labor-intensive process for the committee, but the vote produced a year-long reading list most people seemed happy with.
Meanwhile, an accidental feature began to emerge at the meetings. First, one hostess served food that was mentioned on the pages of the chosen book, then another, and another, until a new name was adopted, Pinetree Drive Good Neighbors No Guilt Literary Food and Book Club. Plan G. Of note was the night we discussed Devil in The White City, by Eric Larson, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, when the hosts served only iconic American snacks introduced at that fair. Juicy Fruit gum, Hershey’s milk chocolate, Vienna sausages, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Cracker Jack, and more. On the night we discussed local author Amanda Kyle Williams’s crime thriller The Stranger You Seek, the hostess served food from the protagonist’s favorite Atlanta area eateries—Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Krystal hamburgers, and Southern Sweets cake. Candy suckers and peach jam sandwiches showed up on the table for The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay. One December we put on a whole dinner with the recipes from Edna Lewis and Decatur’s own Scott Peacock, The Gift of Southern Cooking.
You guessed it, some hosts felt the new name pressured them to serve food from the book and wanted the guilt-free policy to apply to food as well as books. Accordingly, “Literary Food and” was dropped from the name, for Plan H. Now you can serve whatever you like, as long as it includes wine. Nobody has ever protested that.
Another year has gone by. It’s time to select books for 2015. Last year’s overworked committee has proposed Plan I. Members will each present three possible books at January meeting, those in attendance will vote, and the top twelve vote-getters will make our 2015 list, just like that, all at one meeting. No genres. No attempt to alternate fiction with non-fiction, and as always, readers may opt out of the list to read their own choices. Best plan so far. Meets all the criteria of simplicity, group input, focused discussion of a common book, and free choice. We’ll see if it passes the two-year test.
I’m curious to know how other book clubs operate, and if they are evolving, too. If there’s a good Plan J out there, the Pinetree Drive Good Neighbors No Guilt Book Club might try it out in a couple of years.