Book clubs help women get more from what they read


When a woman has children, the first thing she gives up is sleep. Soon, she adds books to that list of luxuries.

Reading requires the kind of concentration that is diminished by children. A friend told me she can no longer hold a thought for longer than the time it takes to change a diaper. Another said USA Today's bite-sized portions must have been designed for the limited attention span of parents.

A woman can only read when all her chores are done, when her children sleep. Then, surely, fatigue will sweep through her veins like a shot of whiskey, and she will be asleep, too.

When her children begin nursery school or when she feels her brain begin to mildew, a woman will often join a book club. Book clubs recall the good students all of us were, or imagine we were -- the time when we were dutiful grade schoolers who read sooner and better than our boy classmates.

The fact that we have to read a book to be prepared for the next meeting is a pleasant bit of homework for us, another task. And we are so good at tasks. Don't bother Mommy now, she has to finish this book for book club.

So St. John's College in Annapolis, where everyone reads and then talks about what he read, hangs out there like Valhalla for me and my women friends. It is the Ultimate Book Club. The kind we can only daydream about.

"There is an old tradition of women forming educational clubs, while men were expected to get together in the gym," said Eva T. H. Brann, dean of St. John's. "In the time when women were called 'ladies,' they got together over books.

"Here at St. John's," she said, smiling, "we aim to bring forth the human over the gender."

Students read Homer, Plutarch, Bacon, Descartes, Shakespeare, Kant, Kafka, Melville, Twain: great writers in the Western tradition. New authors are rarely added; the philosophy has not changed much in nearly 300 years. The students discuss them in long seminars facilitated by "tutors" who are more peers than lecturers. They politely call each other "Miss" or "Mr." in these seminars and talk the readings into pulp.

There is no Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou here, but there is a from-the-ground-up solidity to this reading list that has such appeal to those of us whose connection to books has been reduced to author interviews on the car radio.

"Our students spend four years learning to tackle very difficult books and learning to talk to each other about them," said Dr. Brann. "They leave here prepared to choose any career, but also prepared to appreciate in a critical way the world they live in

because they know its roots."

The St. John's student seems to have changed as little as the curriculum over the years. Most would cheerfully describe themselves as "bookworms" who had some kind of watershed experience with books as a child.

"The men and the women students don't differ in recounting this," said Dr. Brann. "They all found some book in adolescence ** that guided them. For a time, it was 'Catcher in the Rye' or 'Atlas Shrugged.' The sweet and the harsh. Now, it is often Greek tragedies or 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.' "

St. John's teaches these students to read in the broadest sense. They learn to interpret what they have read, to speak to each other, to listen to each other and listen to what the book says.

"Our way of reading assumes that people are, before anything else, human. And a good book will speak to you as a human," she said.

Though Dr. Brann can draw no distinctions between the men and women students, one may emerge some day. The women may find that family life and children may interrupt, if not permanently damage, this romantic relationship with books.

Then they will almost certainly find a book club to join -- one where the intimacy and the taste of coffee will recall their late-night discussions.

It is a kind of interaction the men I know don't seem to require. The warmth of recognition when someone says just what you were thinking, or the little shock you get when someone sees something in a book that you did not. "Prince of Tides" or "Picasso," these are the things the women in my book club like best.

"You may be right," says my husband. "If men had book clubs, they would read Tom Clancy. And then only talk about the movie version."

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