On a Tuesday night, about a dozen people have taken refuge from the cold in a Fells Point restaurant to discuss a 1970s book by a dissident Czech writer.
Some in the group hadn't quite made it all the way through The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera.
But that doesn't stop them from debating whether they should laugh or maybe cry about this tale of a communist Czechoslovakia now vanished into history.
Oprah Winfrey may have put book clubs in the news, but while she has been creating best-sellers and taking James Frey to task for making up stories, Maryland book clubs ranging from the Dear Sisters Book Club of Upper Marlboro to the Ruth Enlow Libraries in Garrett County, have long been quietly selecting, dissecting and endorsing their favorite reads.
In fact, Maryland's new attorney general, Doug Gansler, is so devoted to his book club in Chevy Chase, that he told The Sun that he considered passing up the governor's inaugural ball so he wouldn't miss a club meeting.
Many of the area's book clubs are affiliated with local libraries, but others are started by book lovers who just want to meet like-minded folk. They call some friends and advertise their meetings on Internet sites such as meetup.com.
"We read a whole range of books," says Gary Lyons, president of the Baltimore Book Club, which he organized about a year ago. "We're open to fiction or non-fiction. Recently we read a couple of memoirs."
Some book clubs are organized by genre - such as African-American or Maryland literature - while others, such as Lyons' club, tackle a variety of books.
Naturally, some choices are more popular than others. Although Lyons recommended the Kundera book, a collection of stories and essays by the dissident Czech writer, many at the club's meeting at Ze Mean Bean in Fells Point could not get through the work. "I've just started it myself," confesses Lyons, a 40-year-old systems administrator who manages the research computers at the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland. "I hoped to have it finished by today but I only got about a 100 and some odd pages.
Kara Boles, a software engineer, says she read 109 pages. "It was all right. I hope in the end, when I eventually finish it, there will be some connection between the stories."
The Baltimore Book Club selects its books two months in advance. "People bring books to recommend, then we take a vote on it," Lyons says.
Recent reads have included The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl.
Lyons is a big fan of science fiction, but not many book clubs tackle that genre.
Yet he is such an avid reader that he belongs to two clubs, the Baltimore club and the Towson Book Club.
The Towson club got its start about a year ago when Melisa Deane, a former newspaper reporter in Hawaii, moved to Baltimore, got married, had a baby and was looking for a way to get back into books.
"In Hawaii, I used to read a lot because I was a reporter. So I had to read everything. And when you get pregnant, your brain kind of slows down," she says with a laugh.
Deane says she usually had about 10 books stacked by her bed, but she often didn't finish any of them. "This way it forces me to finish at least one a month," she says.
Among her favorite recent reads were Running With Scissors, Augusten Burrough's autobiography about his life with an emotionally disturbed mother and an equally disturbed psychiatrist.
This month, Deane's club read The Know-It-All, by A.J. Jacobs, which is about a pop-culture critic who thinks he has to read the encyclopedia because he doesn't know anything important.
"I just wanted find a way to meet some people and get back into reading," she says.
While reading books might be the publicized aim for the book clubs, meeting new people is of equal importance.
"Almost every meeting has somebody new," says Lyons.
At the club's last meeting at Ze Mean Bean, about half of those attending were first-timers.
The Towson club started with four people and now has 10 regulars at the monthly meetings.
"We end up making a lot of friends," Deane says.
10 Tips for Starting a Club
Try to get eight to 12 members in your group. Recruit friends and family, or post fliers in your community center or library.
Decide on a time and frequency of meetings, such as monthly or every six weeks, and stick to them. Make sure all your members are willing to commit to meetings.
Think carefully about the location where you want to meet. Rotating between members' homes or meeting in a restaurant are both good options.
Decide whether members who don't finish the book in time should attend a meeting. While they may not know the book's ending, they still may have insights for discussion.
Make sure you have a system for book selections, whether it is choosing a common theme or genre, or allowing a different member to choose each time.
Ask members to prepare a few questions or insights for discussion before the meeting.
Consider hiring a group leader. Local libraries or bookstores should be able to put you in contact with a leader who can help direct and encourage discussion.
Get background information about the author or genre before the meeting.
Check online for book guides that can offer interesting questions or guidelines for discussion.
Check your local library or bookstore for book-group options. Many sponsor monthly meetings with a pre-determined schedule of books.
[readinggroupchoices.com and readinggroupguides.com]
Here are some book clubs to check out in the Baltimore-Washington area:
Baltimore Book Club
Next meeting: 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at Ding How restaurant, 631 S. Broadway. Call 410-327-8888.
Towson Book Club
Next meeting: 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at 716 Scarlett Drive, Towson. For more information, go to bookclub.meetup.com.
Meet the Author Book Club
Next meeting: 3 p.m. today at A Good Book Bookstore & Giftshop, 2101 Gwynn Oak Ave., Gwynn Oak. Call 410-944-5565.
Washington Area Literary Fiction Meetup
Next meeting: 2 p.m. Feb 3 at New Deal Cafe, 113 Centerway, Greenbelt. Go to bookclub.meetup.com.
Baltimore County Public Library Virtual Book Club
An online bookclub. Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.