Harford Library's many book clubs bring readers together

Harford Library's many book clubs bring readers together

Scott Businsky was impressed by Jon Cryer's perseverance in finding success again after the 1980s movie "Pretty in Pink."

"That tenacity kind of stuck with me. It was cool to see," Businsky said of the actor, now famous as the co-star in the television show "Two and a Half Men."

John Rusin agreed, adding: "If you don't get something, maybe you weren't the exact right person to have it."

Rusin and Businsky had both been reading Cryer's self-deprecating autobiography, "So That Happened," a New York Times bestseller after its 2015 release.

On a recent Monday evening, they met up with Aberdeen Library branch manager Jennifer Jones and Harford County Public Library Chief Operating Officer Daria Parry to chat about the memoir over dinner at The Greene Turtle in Aberdeen as part of the library system's Books on Tap series.

The initiative is just one of many ways Harford's library system works to bring residents together through its various book clubs and book discussion groups, which Parry said "allow us to engage our customers in community conversations and connect them with the love of reading."

Whether it's finding surprising life lessons in lighter fare like Cryer's book or pondering serious historical and psychological questions, attendees and leaders of the discussion groups definitely seem to be having a good time and enjoying each other's company.

A big part of the library's mission is engaging the community, Parry said.

"What better way than book discussions?" she said, explaining the book clubs are overseen by the individual library branches and led by librarians, often outside the branch walls.

Groups for older adults meet at Aberdeen, Edgewood, Havre de Grace and Bel Air senior centers, for example. A project at the Bel Air branch called Book Groups to Go lets people check out a bag filled with 10 copies of a selected title, along with a moderator's binder.

Books on Tap, which has more than 200 "tappers" signed up via Meetup.com, began a little over a year ago when MaGerk's Pub approached the library about hosting book discussions there.

Books on Tap now meets at local eateries like Sean Bolan's Pub, Pairings Bistro and The Greene Turtle.

"We are trying to draw in young adults in the 20s and 30s age range, so the things they are discussing are [books like] John Waters' 'Carsick' and 'Ready Player One' [a dystopian novel by Ernest Cline]," Parry said.

Five people, led by library associate Rob Zimmerman, were at MaGerk's recently to chat about Philip Dick's 1963 book "The Man in the High Castle," which sparked a major Amazon Prime TV show last year.

Most of the attendees had not actually finished the alternative history novel, which is set in 1962 and posits a United States that lost World War II and is ruled by Japan and Nazi Germany.

Readers like Annie Kovach of Bel Air, however, had no problem with people not getting into the book.

"If everyone likes it, it's less interesting," she pointed out about the selected books.

Kovach said Books on Tap helps introduce different perspectives.

"That's one of the things I like about book clubs, is it makes you read things you wouldn't normally read," she said.

For Michael Gram of Bel Air, the club revived his interest in reading.

"I didn't read a lot, and then I started reading books more. It's kind of cool," he said.

Julie Rothwell, of Havre de Grace, said her mother started going to a Havre de Grace book club to get to know her neighbors a little more.

"She says she always sees the same people, and she gets to really interact with them [at the club]," Rothwell said.

Zimmerman said he tries to choose two fiction books followed by one nonfiction; the Aberdeen Books on Tap group only reads nonfiction. He was attracted to "The Man in the High Castle" because of the TV series and said he liked it for the different ideas of history.

"It just makes you think of what could be, if Hitler was still alive," he said.

Rothwell said it also made her think of other events in history that could have ended differently.

"It's not such a far-fetched idea," she said.

Zimmerman said the book left many strings untied at the end, and Dick had been contemplating a sequel. He asked his group what comments the book makes about history as it happened.

Gram thought it showed how political victory is in the eye of the beholder.

"According to us, we may be the heroes, but according to them, we might not be the heroes," he said.

Zimmerman pointed out how the Civil War, for example, has been called "the War of Northern Aggression" by the South.

Kovach agreed: "It's all about how you read it."

'A safe place'

The Bel Air Library, meanwhile, has two "extremely successful and long-standing" book clubs, Books at the Center, which is a collaboration with the McFaul Activities Center, and the Bel Air Fiction Book Discussion, branch manager Beth LaPenotiere said.

They regularly draw about 15 people monthly, she said.

Bob Hoff, who leads the fiction group, often brings the author of the books into the discussions via speakerphone, such as Garth Stein for the book "The Sudden Light," Jonathan Odell who wrote "Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League" and Sigal Samuel who penned "The Mystics of Mile End."

A Bel Air-based mystery book group, Mysterious Minds, has meanwhile Skyped with D.E. Johnson, author of "The Detroit Electric Scheme," she said.

Librarian Nancy Smith, who leads Mysterious Minds along with Amy Kraft, said that group is in its ninth year and sometimes tries innovative ideas like suggesting a theme and having attendees bring their own books based on that theme.

The group has read everything from holiday mysteries to mysteries based in a specific location, like Ireland.

Once they picked the subgenre of presidential or political assassinations. The group then met at Bel Air's Tudor Hall, home of famous assassin John Wilkes Booth, and sat on the patio discussing their books.

"It was wonderful. It was a lot of fun," Smith said.

LaPenotiere said those groups, as well as new ones like Books on Tap, have been "a wonderful collaboration with the individual places, the individual establishments and the library, and it's fantastic that we can get out to those establishments and that they want us."

Another targeted series is the Veterans Book Group, launched last year and funded by the state through the Maryland Humanities Council.

Karen Arnold, a Howard County resident who has led the group, said it has drawn 12 to 15 veterans to talk about both books and other texts like Toni Morrison's "Home," Wayne Karlin's "Wandering Souls," Audrey Shafer's "The Mailbox" and a New York Times essay called "The Things She Carried," by Cara Hoffman.

Arnold is not a veteran but taught at the U.S. Naval Academy and said the group has been "a good outlet for the veterans. They like to be together and talk to people who understand what they have been through."

Attendees have included veterans from World War II as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.

"When they are talking about things they have gone through, they really listen to one another and they are very kind to each other and they are open-hearted in sharing their stories," she said.

"The literature gives you a safe place to meet with your feelings and your experiences," she said, explaining that discussing someone else's combat experiences in a book can be easier than opening up about one's own life.

"You can talk about what they faced and you can express your opinions about that," she said. "The literature gives you a place to focus on."

Arnold mentioned the sense of community that developed in last year's discussion group. That feeling has been felt in many of the library's book groups, where people seem to take a genuine interest in each other and are willing to hear each other out.

"A lot of times when the class is over, people will stay and talk one on one, two or three people together," Arnold said. "Last May, when we had our last meeting, everybody said, 'Oh, no, we have to wait until January.'"

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