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COMMUNITY: Heavy reading in the Great Big Book Club

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COMMUNITY • BY MAX BENNETT

Forget your checkout-line pulp novels, the books Oprah recommends, or the bestseller list on Amazon: the Great Big Book Club tackles classic authors and some of the most difficult novels literary history has seen.

Many of the works the club reads are books people remember from high school or English 101 class, books people loathed for their length, depth, and profundity.

Past books include Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

This isn’t your typical book club.

“It’s a support group for the people who want to read these types of books,” Ellen Robbins, director of the Takoma Park Library, said.

Willing waders

Fittingly, the club, hosted by the Friends of the Takoma Park Library operates in a traditional academic manner. They meet during a semester-like schedule.

The club reads one book in the spring and another in the fall. They have been following this model since the club’s inception in 2009.

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The Great Big Book Group discussing Victor Hugo’s  “Les Miserables,”  Hydrangea Room, Takoma Park Community Center. Photo by Michele Morgan.

The group began with a newer translation of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”

“We thought no one was going to want to wade through that,” Robinson said.

But people kept coming back for more.

The members of the Great Big Book Club gather biweekly, about four or five times, from about 7:30 to 9 p.m. to discuss classic literature.

Generally, the club reads and discusses one book over two months.

Literary types

One-by-one, ten people shuffle into the small Hydrangea Room, its walls hung with old black-and-white photos of Takoma Park, in the Takoma Park Community Center.

Some members are active members of the literary community.

Kelly Cresap is a professor of creative writing at the University of Maryland, College Park and has a PhD in English from University of Virginia.

Phil Schewe is a playwright and author of “Maverick Genius” and “The Grid.” Schewe also has a PhD but it’s far from English. He earned his degree in physics back in 1978.

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Book club meeting. From left to right: Tim Rahn, Merrill Leffler, Mary Ellen Koenig, Sherelyn Ernst. Photo by Michele Morgan.

Merrill Leffler, the facilitator and founder of the group, is Takoma Park’s poet laureate, former University of Maryland and Naval Academy professor, and Dryad Press founder. Leffler’s history is also worth noting, as he studied physics in college and worked and for NASA until his late 20s.

Some club members passionately vocalize their interpretations and theories of the books while others listen intently, soaking the roomful of intellectual banter into their expanding minds.

During discussion, members casually throw around words like “impressionist,” “unrequited,” and “reverie” when discussing the books.

Making light of the heavy

But it’s not all seriousness.

One member read from a blog that reference The Simpsons to their current book, “In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past,” by Marcel Proust.

Schewe referred to Charles Swann, the book’s protagonist, as a “chump.”

Despite having a well-educated group of readers, each book is introduced by a lecture.

“We’ve always opened these books with… a discussion,” Leffler said. “We’ve have a number of professors from the University of Maryland.”

Learned guests

Guest speakers include professors Cynthia Martin and Marianna Landa from University of Maryland’s Russian department; Russian and French professor Elena Lozinsky who is currently translating Proust’s work into Russian; and professors Robert Levine and William Cohen from the English department.

Other professors who have opened the reading periods come from George Washington University and Catholic University.

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Takoma Park Public Library.

Leffler shied away from saying these discussions by professors were lectures, as the club doesn’t lecture at all.

He said a reading semester will begin with anywhere from 20 to 30 people attending the opening lecture, with numbers tapering slightly as the meetings continue.

Everyone brings a distinctive perspective to the discussions, Leffler said.

Favorites

When asked if he had a favorite book, Wally Malakoff said his was “War and Peace.”

“It was a great story and it was also philosophy and history,” he said.

“I only did ‘Ulysses,’ and between those two, Proust is my favorite,” Miriam Szapiro said.

“’Ulysses’ has been the biggest book of my life,” Schewe said.

Cresap said “Moby Dick” and “Daniel Martin” by John Fowles were his favorites.

“Specifically because they enlarge my understanding of the universe,” Cresap said, “and they reward rereading so much.”

“The novel that’s both entertaining and [enlightening] was for me ‘Ulysses,’” Ann Slayton said. “I think this is the third time I’ve read and I just loved it even more on the third time around.”

Lighter reading

The Friends of Takoma Park Library also hosts a lighter reading group called the Friends Reading Group.

They have read books such as “Catch-22″ by Joseph Heller, “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner, and “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.

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Takoma Park Public Library mosaic.

Newcomers are welcome to attend any Friends Reading Group, Great Big Book Club discussions, or other library book clubs. Send an email to Library Director Ellen Robbins to get on the mailing list for upcoming books:

Yes, anyone is invited to attend any discussion by the ‘Great Big Book Club.’  Also the Friends Reading Group, which is similar (also started by Merrill years ago), except that they discuss a shorter book at one meeting.  That group will meet to discuss short stories by Alice Munro on Wed. December 11.  The last Proust discussion is Wed. December 4.

About the author: Max Bennett

Max Bennet is from Sayre, Pa. He earned his bachelors degree in English from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania in 2011. After graduating he worked as a copy editor and sports stringer for the Morning Times in Sayre. He currently is working towards a masters degree in journalism at University of Maryland, College Park.

1 comment

  1. Steve Whitney says:

    Thanks to the Great Big Book Group I finally got through Moby Dick and the Brothers Karamazov after countless attempts to read them on my own. Both were incredibly good – and challenging – and the group meetings were always excellent. It’s like having a nice big group meal instead of eating alone.

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