In 1968, a group of new mothers started a book club in a suburb of Detroit. Fifty-three years and more than 630 books later, ten of the Lit Group’s twelve original members continue to meet monthly. Now in their eighties, they have celebrated marriages, grandchildren, and retirements—and supported each other through divorces, the loss of spouses, and even the passing of two of their own members. When I called to interview three of the members, Sharon, Beverly, and Edie, they were on the patio having bagels and coffee. To avoid interrupting each other during the recording, I asked them to take turns talking. They laughed and said, “That’s difficult for us, but we’ll try.”
Tell me about the early days of your book group.
Edie: We started in the ’sixties. It was a time of great upheaval. It was the beginning of the feminist movement, and our reading reflected that.
Sharie: We read The Feminine Mystique. At that time many women were under their husband’s thumb.
Edie: I was a teacher, and I went back to work when my daughter was three months old. At that time, it was unheard of to leave a child at home. My mother-in-law was appalled.
Beverly: I went back right after my daughter was born, also. I would get comments like, “You left your baby at home?” But I just knew that it was right for me. Another woman in our group wanted to teach, but her husband and her extended family thought it was awful. It was the support from our group that pushed her to do it.
Sharie: Most of us were working. We didn’t have to ask anybody for permission to do things. We just did them.
Did you bring your babies to book club?
Sharie: No, never.
Edie: Our husbands knew book club night was sacred. There was no question. They took care of the kids. We were out.
Did your choice of books usually reflect the movements of the time?
Edie: Yes. But we also read biographies, we read history, we read fiction. If you looked at my bookshelf, you could almost see the evolution of our time in the books we read. We read Why History Matters by Gerda Lerner. That was, to me, a very important book because until then, women’s history had been so neglected. You can see a parallel with Black Lives Matter today and how people are starting to read more Black literature.
Let’s talk about Black Lives Matter for a minute. I’ll note that everyone in the Lit Group is white. Any books on your list about the Black experience?
Sharie: We’ve been reading Black literature for years. There was a period where we met with a Black book club.
Beverly: I remember one of the women said that her mother cleaned houses like ours.
Edie: Those meetings were very meaningful because we do see things differently. One time the group had some dissension—I think it was about intermarriage—and I will never forget Beverly, in my living room, saying, “If this group can’t get along, there’s no hope for the world.”
Sharie: Ken Cockrel came to speak to us. He was a Black activist who later joined the city council. He was a rebel. He came to our meeting wearing denim jeans and a denim jacket, talking about the honkies and how we had all the cards. He blew our minds.
Edie: We were very aware of the anger in the ’sixties. We read about Malcolm X. He wanted a revolution. Against us. And we’re reliving that now.
Were you friends before you formed the group?
Beverly: No. When we first started, we purposely did not invite only friends, because we did not want the group to be a coffee klatch.
Sharie: Now it’s a coffee klatch. But in those days it was not.
How do you pick your books?
Edie: Books are like food. Sometimes you want a cheap hamburger and sometimes you want filet. We don’t create a list in advance. We come in and say, “What do we want to read this time?” We chew on a couple of titles and then decide.
Do your meetings have a structure?
Sharie: No. We are totally unstructured and undisciplined.
Beverly: Many book clubs have a leader, but we’ve always agreed that we didn’t need one.
How much of your meeting is spent talking about the book, would you say?
Edie: Depends on the book. Some books elicit the entire meeting time. The book we just read, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, raised many questions: What does it mean to be Jewish? How do we feel about Israel? How do we feel about the Arab conflict? So we were on task that entire meeting. And we are all very different. A couple of us are very religious. A couple of us are Humanistic Jews. So we have a wide variety of opinions, which makes for good discussion.
How do you handle disagreements?
Sharie: Sometimes it gets a little heated, but by the next meeting, it’s okay again.
Edie: There was one book that I thought was outstanding, and one of the women said, “Just show me one sentence in the book that was worth knowing!” It was a bit feisty there for a while. But a couple days later she called and apologized, and I love her all the more.
How else are the women in the group different?
Edie: Well, for example, one of our members is very literary. She’s a scholar, and she wants to read Literature with a capital “L.” But sometimes the girls just want a good story.
Where do you meet?
Edie: We rotate homes. At the beginning we met at night after the kids were in bed, and we would just have coffee and cake. After the kids grew up, we started meeting for dinner. Now we meet in the afternoon for lunch because some of us are not driving at night.
Is there wine?
Sharie: Oh yes, of course. Always.
How many bottles?
Beverly: Oh, not that much. We only have a glass before we start the discussion. It’s not a drinking group.
What adjustments have you had to make for Covid?
Sharie: We tried Zoom meetings but that didn’t work real well. So once the weather got nice, we’ve been meeting outside on somebody’s patio or in the yard, and that is much more satisfying.
Do you still read books or do you use devices?
Beverly: I prefer reading. When I’m listening to an audiobook my mind wanders.
Sharie: I listen to audiobooks when I have a long drive. But other than that, I would just as soon sit with the book, or the Kindle or my iPad.
Edie: I prefer the book itself. I really think we should still buy books. The bookstores are practically out of business, so I try to keep them alive.
What makes for a good book discussion? Let’s focus on fiction.
Edie: For me there are three things that make a good book. First is if I care about the characters. The second is if I’m learning something. And the third is if the book is well written—whether there are expressions or metaphors that are clever or interesting.
What do each of the three of you bring to the group, as individuals?
Beverly: Probably my unique life experience.
Sharie: Positivity. And I speak with authority. I may not always be right, but I speak with authority.
Edie: That’s exactly right. That’s perfect.
Sharie: And Edie is our literary guru. She is a leader. She’s a teacher, she’s a writer, and she keeps us on track.
Edie: Wonderful. But you spoke for me.
Sharie: Well, do you have anything else to add?
Edie: As a member of the group, I would say I try to keep things balanced, and I accept differences of opinion. I mean, am I always right? Of course. But I think I’m respectful of others.
Do you do things together outside of book group?
Sharie: Oh, yeah. We went to Toronto to see Hair because it could not be performed in Detroit. Just recently we celebrated an 80th birthday by going to an exhibit of paper art at the Flint museum. For the group’s 50th anniversary we had dinner at a restaurant. We had ordered a cake, and we wanted a picture of the cake. So Edie tilted it to take a picture and it slid off the board and onto the floor.
Edie: It was so embarrassing.
Sharie: We salvaged what we could and ate it.
Favorite book of all time?
Edie: One of our all-time favorite books was Citizens of London by Lynne Olson. She brought World War II to life. We could hear the bombs. We learned what went on behind the scenes of so many figures that we know historically, but didn’t know about their love lives. We love historical fiction because you learn so much.
What are you reading now?
Sharie: It’s called Afterlife by Julia Alvarez.
Edie: It’s about a retired English professor who is newly widowed. It’s a beautiful story. And it’s relatable because some of us have been English teachers, and, sadly, some of us have been widowed.
What do you think is the secret to your book club’s longevity?
Sharie: This is a group of women that really respects each other. Through the years, it became a sounding board. If you had anything that you wanted to discuss, you could bring it up in the group and get honest opinions—usually valid ones—and it never left the room. You knew it was safe.
Edie: A lot of bonding happened over the years, and the book group became almost a support group.
Beverly: We care about the people who are in it. We respect their opinion and the contribution that each person brings to the group. That has become very special.
What about the book club has meant the most to you, over the years?
Sharie: For me, it’s the friendship. The women in our group—if you needed them, they would be there in a heartbeat.
Edie: That’s a hard question. I think it’s the respect we’ve gained for each other’s differences—in their choices of reading, but also in who they are and how they live their lives.
Does everybody always come? And do they finish the books?
Sharie: Usually we finish them. If not, sometimes I’ll go back and read the book after listening to the discussion because it sparks interest.
Edie: If somebody has something more important, sometimes they’ll back out. But it’s rare.
Beverly: You come whether you like the book or not. I mean, that’s not the point.
Sharie: Yeah, the point is continuing the book club.
Beverly: Aside from talking about books, we just love the interaction. It’s about being together.
Sharie: We truly look forward to our meetings and to seeing each other. We have developed a very special relationship.
This interview was conducted in September of 2020. The original transcript has been edited.