LitClub:  The Literature Group
Baltimore (City and County), Maryland

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SCHOOL MAY HAVE QUIT THEM... but they refused to quit school. When their college instructor left them in the lurch, these devoted life-learners and readers decided to continue on their own.

Your story is intriguing—tell us more.
We had our origins in September, 2008, when a group of us signed up for an eight-week literature class. The course was part of The Senior Institute at the Community College of Baltimore County.

We ended up taking classes over three semesters—from September through June, 2009. Each semester was devoted to a theme selected by the instructor:
Emerging Voices
Post Modernism
South African Literature.

So what happened?
Our instructor decided not to teach the course in the fall of 2009, so a group of classmates suggested continuing on our own.

How many "stayed the course" so to speak?
We started with nine from the course. We're now up to 11 members.

Tell us what you've read lately.
Here's our list over the past year:

Tenth of December - George Saunders
Indignation - Philip Roth
Destiny of the Republic - Candice Millard
Burgess Boys - Elizabeth Strout
Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
The Dinner - Herman Koch
Transatlantic - Colum McCann
The Stranger - Albert Camus
Spectator Bird  - Wallace Stegner
Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner
Someone - Alice McDermott
Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud
Razor's Edge - Somerset Maugham
Sound of Things Falling -Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Wild Sheep Chase - Haruki Murakami
Storied Life of A.J. Fikry - Gabrielle Zevin
Unnecessary Woman - Rabih Alameddine
Oracle Night - Paul Auster
Wives of Los Alamos - TaraShea Nesbit

Any particularly good discussions?
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Grabrielle Zevin led to a three-pronged discussion: how books are chosen for inclusion in a privately owned bookstore, the reaction the book's fictional characters have to what they read, and the personal growth the characters experience through reading and discussing.

Members especially connected with the characters in Someone by Alice McDermott, and this led to a sharing of personal experiences.

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami and Oracle Night by Paul Auster led to discussions about post modern literature—especially how those who were initially uncomfortable with this newer genre had come to appreciate its variations in structure.

Reading and discussing our classic books (Wallace Stegner and Somerset Maugham) afforded the group the opportunity of looking at the differences in writing styles over the decades and discussing what defines a classic or "literary" novel versus popular fiction.

Angle of Repose, our second book by Stegner (the first was The Spectator Bird), led to a good discussion of similarities/contrasts between the two books as well as our observations about our growing familiarity with Stegner's style.

Other good discussions included The Woman Upstairs, An Unnecessary Woman, and The Wives of Los Alamos.

An impressive list. Do you follow any criteria for choosing your books?
We try to be diverse—classics, historical fiction, literary best sellers, some non-fiction, and books written by authors from other cultures.

How do you make your selections?

It's a democratic process. At the end of each semester, we hold a two-hour planning session. Prior to the session, individual members send out an email to everyone in the group with possible titles and links to reviews. This way, by the time we get together for the planning session, we've reviewed each other's suggestions.

At the meeting, each member recommends two books for consideration. Then everyone votes for five books they want to read (10 weeks/2 weeks per book for a total of 5 books a semester). The five that receive the majority of votes are the books we read.

Who leads your discussions?
After we select the books and schedule the meetings, we decide who will facilitate each discussion. We might have a single facilitator ... or co-facilitators ... or even a "literature circle" in which each member has a role in the discussion.

You also use a Discussion Outline?
We've developed a standard outline to provide a focal point for the facilitator. Topics include
Author biography Themes Literary references Characters Historical time period Style of writing Structure of the book Cultural background of the story Prior critical reviews.

Do you have any club rules?
Our primary rule is that one person talks at a time. Occasionally, people talk over each other, but we're careful about enforcing this rule.

We work at being objective in our comments about the books. When people have subjective views, we identify them as subjective and ask for clarification of the person’s viewpoint.

Although we do bring in personal issues that relate to and expand the material in the book, we do not spend our session time on personal matters not directly related to the book discussion. Those we save for our lunch get-togethers after the meeting.

And you talk about literary theory?
Yes. We try to set aside one session during each semester for literary theory. By this we mean a topic that is of interest to the group, a given individual, or something that came up during a group discussion that we want to explore more deeply.

These discussions are of a fairly high level of research and discussion. Often, one topic gives rise to future topics. The group then uses the knowledge gained thru the literary theory discussion and applies that to future book discussions.

Topics we have discussed include Ways of Analyzing Fiction Minor Characters Implied Author Different Types of Literary Criticism, especially Formalism, Post Modernism, Reader-Response Theory.

Overall, how would you describe your club?
Although we're all women (we did have a male participant at one time), our group is diverse. Our ages range from our mid-60s to to upper 80s.

Most, if not all of us, are at least college graduates, and all of us were employed at one time. Some members were English majors, but most of the group did not specialize in English and use the group as a means of expanding their knowledge of literature.

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