At first glance, the group of mothers and children gathered at the neighborhood park looks like any other play group.
A closer look and listen reveals a book club that doesn’t fit the stereotype.
JoAnne Ambuul, a member of a Colorado Springs, Colo., book club, describes her group as unstructured and relaxed.
“During the meeting, mothers are certainly not just sitting down, basking in intellectual stimulation,” Ambuul said. “Many times, the moms are getting up from the blankets and chairs to help a toddler, work on a disagreement or kiss a boo-boo.”
The Colorado Springs group has about 30-40 members and meets weekly during the summer. “Moms need to challenge themselves mentally, even during the summer,” Ambuul said. “We don’t want our minds to go to mush with the heat of summer.”
The children benefit as well.
“We wanted to have a regular meeting in the summer for the kids,” Ambuul said. “People take trips, have out-of-town company, etc., but at least once a week, you know that some good families are at a park playing in the sand, running around, playing baseball or basketball. It’s a great time for the lost neighborhood pick-up game to have a comeback.”
Ambuul’s sister-in-law, Silvia Ambuul, leads the group. She first joined the book club 12 years ago when she was a new mother.
In choosing books for the group, Silvia takes recommendations, but she has the responsibility of choosing each summer’s title.
For this summer’s reading, she chose One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp. Previous summer reading has included Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel, A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken and Bringing Up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid’s Childhood From a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World by Marybeth Hicks.
The group’s members are primarily Catholic, with an age range of 23 to 53. Discussions are not structured.
“It’s not unusual for someone to come to the meeting with something weighing on them, a concern or some joy to share,” Silvia said. “I love that, because we pray for each other, and our group is very supportive and encouraging in holiness, I think.”
Striving for holiness is something Christine Smolynsky of Atlanta feels she has in common with her own book club, which began 11 years ago and has gone through some changes over the years.
“Ages range from early 20s to as high as 50 possibly; generally, Gen-X-er heavy,” Smolynsky said. “These are some of the most deeply passionate Catholic young adults I’ve encountered over the years.”
“This group is very much the product of the JPII generation,” Smolynsky added.
Meeting weekly on Sunday morning over brunch, the book club studies religious works, classic theology and the writings of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In the summer, the group will often get together afterward to go kayaking or hiking, Smolynsky said.
“Possibly [the outdoor activities are] unconsciously modeled after JPII’s own young-adult groups and outings he led back when he was a young priest in Poland,” Smolynsky said.
The book club fulfills more than the need to learn more about the faith — it offers an opportunity for community and personal growth. “It is an authentic domestic church in its own right,” Smolynsky said. “The friendships that usually spring from the evolving group are holy and real.”
The joy of the club members initially drew Smolynsky to join the group. Over the years, she has seen relationships develop and marriages come about among the members who take turns each week hosting, teaching and facilitating.
In Atchison, Kan., Jen Ramage, a young mother of a toddler, organized her own book club as an expression of her love of literature.
“My group is mostly other mothers that I get together with for play dates for our kids,” Ramage said.
Ramage’s group meets once a month without the children to discuss that month’s selection. While Ramage could read on her own, reading and discussing literature with others has an important benefit for her: “I get exposed to other people’s opinions and insights. My hope was to read Christian and mainstream classics.”
The group does not only look at the literary merits of a book; the members also examine its moral and spiritual merits.
“That’s exactly what I was hoping for in starting the book club: appreciating the book from a literary perspective and its aspects of morality and virtue,” Ramage said.
Books the club has read include The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, My Antonia by Willa Cather and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
Book clubs can be customized to suit any demographic and have the potential to evolve into more than just a group of people who read and discuss books. Strong friendships that extend to members’ children and spouses can be part of the unexpected blessing of a book club. In each case, these book clubs create a community within a community, offering an opportunity to read, share and develop friendships in the process.
That has been the case with Smolynsky’s group. And Silvia Ambuul is excited about how women who come to her book club are introduced to authentic Catholic faith and culture.
“It’s catechesis in a very gentle, non-threatening manner,” Ambuul said. “I think it’s good to have the books as a springboard for what’s going on in our lives, in our heads, in the world, that maybe we need to figure out for ourselves.”
Adds Smolynsky, “Who wouldn’t love coffee and brunch on a sunny Sunday morning with good people and good books?”
Laurie Ghigliotti writes from Atchison, Kansas.
Pitch the idea of a book club to other potentially like-minded people.
Consider a planning meeting to decide on meeting time and place and the title of your first book. How often will the group meet? Gather contact information. Creating an email list that everyone has access to ensures that members can communicate easily and share information about meeting changes or book availability.
Some libraries support book clubs by gathering copies from their library network and making them available to club members.
Don’t worry about deviating from the topic. Part of developing a cohesive group is allowing time before, during or after the book discussion to get to know each other better.
Be flexible: The Ambuuls’ group sometimes reads a chapter or two of their book aloud to accommodate members who may not have been able to get the book or didn’t have time to read. This approach allows for a closer reading of the material and an “as we go” discussion.
Some book clubs begin and end their meetings with prayer for discernment and direction as well as for members’ intentions.
— Laurie Ghigliotti