Ladies in large red hats, daintily devouring finger sandwiches and hoisting copies of the classics (or the oh so scandalous "50 Shades of Grey") while sipping tea in a lush garden…so goes the dynamic of the stereotypical idyllic book club. Open the nonfiction version of reality, and you find the young adults of the Des Moines area leading, reading and loving the modern version of the literary collective. These group leaders have cast off the white lace gloves and opened the doors to gatherings of bibliophiles and casual readers alike. Their tried and true advice presents itself as the moral of this story when thinking about beginning your own club or joining one.
Start at the beginning
Sitting pretty on gorgeous grounds, the Salisbury House plays backdrop to the Salisbury House Young Professional (SHYP) book club. Will Aeschliman, 34, SHYP Board Member, said the club grew out of an appropriate tie-in with the impeccable Salisbury House Library. Wrapped in dark wood and center-lit with a chandelier, the collection is home to more than 3,000 pieces of literature that could make any word-lover weep. The group then has viewing access to first-edition prints, rare books (such as an illustrated copy of "Ulysses" with illustrations by Matisse), manuscripts and religious texts (like a leaf from the original Gutenberg Bible printing).
"A book club was an ample fit with the library and the incredible collections," Aeschliman said. "We first started it with books only found in the library, such as the classics."
"It was a good opportunity to review those. It was great because we could actually show the group a first edition of the book!"
The YP group organizing the bi-monthly club said that it has been a successful way of engaging a younger audience with the gem that is the historic South of Grand home.
When Molly Hanson, 28, was invited to join her old friend Sara Embrey's book club, she jumped at the chance. While a lifelong lover of books, she had never been involved with a formal club before.
"My favorite thing about being in a book club, apart from the friendship and wine, is that I have really expanded my reading repertoire," Hanson said. "I find myself reading and enjoying books that I never would have selected for myself and getting out of my comfort zone. I was such an English nerd in school and it is basically reliving those classes with some really fun and intelligent women!"
After moving to Des Moines and leaving a book club in northeast Iowa, Macy Koch, 25, knew she wanted to begin a new club to keep herself reading and connect with other women. Through social media, attracting new friends to "Reading Between the Wines" was seemingly simple.
"I started a group on Facebook to gauge interest with those that I knew from the area. The Facebook group grew to over 50 members, and we planned the first meeting which had 15 women in attendance," Koch said.
They have since been meeting monthly at a variety of locations around the Des Moines metro area.
Know your audience
It is an age-old trick, but few things go better with an intriguing book than wine, chocolate, tasty appetizers and coffee. A common theme of the successful clubs is that hosts provide nourishment for the body to complement the book's nourishment for the mind.
Hanson remarked that the most rewarding clubs are ones where members genuinely like to read.
"This one may seem obvious, but you really need to have a group of hungry readers. I use the term hungry because you really have to want to devour books," Hanson said. "Life gets so busy and casual reading can easily get lost in the shuffle."
Listening is essential for the flow of a book club. Hanson mentioned that meetings can get loud, alcohol-infused and easily taken off topic, so those good listeners are key to the discussion.
"One of the best parts of the club is learning about how others interpreted the same book that you just read, but in a different way. But, if everyone is talking at the same time, it is a challenge," Hanson said.
Readers can be choosers
After the first year of classics the SHYP book club decided to switch it up with more modern titles, award-winners and acclaimed pieces of literature that can tie in with a specific piece in the Salisbury House collection. For example in 2014 the group dove into "The Goldfinch," by Donna Tartt, which has an underlying art theme. The committee selects the books with suggestions taken from SHYP members, Drake professors and Salisbury House leadership.
Next up on the club's list for discussion on January 21 is Hilary Mantel's first two parts — "Wolf Hall," and "Bring up the Bodies"— in the trilogy centered around Henry VIII's very own House of Cards-esque fixer, Thomas Cromwell. Naturally, the British tie-in comes from the setting of the books with the Salisbury, England inspiration behind the house's architecture.
Aeschliman says to put May 20, themed as "Books as Art Night," on your calendar. Books from the Salisbury House collection will be pulled, presented and discussed, and attendees will a pursue deeper understanding of the integration and craftsmanship ingrained through bookmaking, illustrations and literature.
"Within the collection you can see how the books are bound, it is exciting to see," Aeschliman said.
The collective of women in both Koch's and Hanson's book clubs choose books with a democratic approach: They take turns hosting and the host of the next month's read gets to choose the book. Sometimes, Hanson said, they will throw in a thematic twist such as reading a book from the banned books list during the Banned Books Week.
Love thy leaders
While it is great for everyone in the club to participate, it's advantageous to begin the discussion with talking points or prompts presented by a knowledgeable group leader. Aeschliman said the roster rotates between SHYP members, Salisbury House Executive Director, J. Eric Smith, Curator and Historian Megan Stout Sibbel, and Drake University professors.
"With the professors you can always know it's not going to be awkward… It's not like a class," Aeschliman said. "We don't like people to feel like they have to read the whole book to participate."
Hanson said that having an organized leader, especially for a club not run by a specific group is important.
"Embrey brought us all together and she is so wonderfully organized!" Hanson said. "We all keep in touch via email and talk about meeting planning, hosts and locations, and what we might like to be reading next. Sara also sends out fun books lists that she finds and random adorable items and quotes about book lovers; she keeps it fun and easy."
Join the club
"Book clubs are a way to continue reading," Aeschliman said. "With the Salisbury House book club we're not necessarily a group of friends, but there is fun and there is wine; we have great discussions without being too heavy. Plus, we have access to the Salisbury House collection!"
Aeschliman added that the personal access to the smart minds of the Salisbury House staff is another perk. Free for Salisbury House members and $5 for nonmembers seems like a small price to pay for lively libation-fueled literary conclave. The group self-regulates itself with an average of about 10 to 15 regulars and newbies.
Hanson said that if you're forming a book club, a pre-established bond is a starting place.
"It's hard to bring together a group of strangers with only one friend in common," Hanson said. "We bring in new members as we meet them and learn about their interest in reading, but having that core group of friends to get things started adds extra incentive to get together for meetings."
It is obvious the purpose of a book club is indeed to read and discuss the book, but Koch said her group understands that life happens — the books do not always get finished.
"Our name is Reading Between the Wines to hopefully help members understand that we are informal — we do not force anyone to read or show that they have read," Koch affirmed. "That's because the group is more than just a book club, but also a support group of peers that talk about life, goals, frustrations, celebrations … it's a night away to relax, have great discussions and meet new people."