Q&A with Jan Seerveld, The Silicon Valley Book Club
Back in 1982, a group of Calvin College grads in California decided they missed the literary discussions they'd enjoyed as students, and decided to start a book club.
The rest is history.
(This week Comment strays off the beaten path of our 2008 interviews . . .)
Comment: How did your book club get started?
Jan Seerveld: A number of recent Calvin College graduates attending the Palo Alto Christian Reformed Church in the San Francisco Bay Area agreed they missed the literary discussions they'd enjoyed as students, and decided to start a book club. Our first meeting was in the summer of 1982 and our first book was The Book of Lights by Chaim Potok. We meet about once a month in members' homes, rotating alphabetically by household surname.
Comment: What does a regular book club meeting look like?
JS: These days it looks like a bunch of middle-aged friends sitting around a comfortable living room surrounded by wine glasses and plates of party food.
Comment: What are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned over the years about being a book club?
JS: Sometimes it's the least enjoyable books that make for the best discussions.
Being part of a book club is a very good way to deepen friendships. The book discussions provide a graceful way into the centre of people's worldviews and values, their personal histories, their passions and dreams.
Comment: How do you select books to read?
JS: It's kind of a free-for-all. Anyone who has a book in mind (has heard of something recommended, or has recently read a book that seems interesting) offers it as a suggestion for the next meeting's discussion. Then we vote on the titles mentioned. A simple majority decides the election of the next book. Even though a couple of people in the group keep meticulous records of all the candidate books, somehow we rarely reconsider the titles that lost the vote at the previous meeting, even though a good portion of the group may have voted for them at the time. It's a bit odd.
Comment: Tell us about some of your favourite reading experiences, as a club.
JS: You can see on the booklist on our web site a "smile" notation beside the titles the group as a whole enjoyed the most (and a frown beside the ones most disliked). We still laugh reminiscing about The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole even though we read it over 25 years ago.
We've truly enjoyed a couple of special field trip meetings: for one meeting we toured the John Steinbeck museum in Salinas (the book was Steinbeck's Pastures of Heaven), and for the discussion of BelCanto by Anne Patchett we met at the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose.
We agreed fairly early on that we should not read more than one book by the same author, but looking back over the twenty-six-year history of the group I can see that we've broken that rule for about twenty writers already. Some of them are Jane Austen, Robertson Davies, E. M. Forster, Alan Paton, Marilynne Robinson, and Wallace Stegner.
Comment: Can you link us to some of your favourite recipes for things to eat while meeting as a book club?
JS: Yes, indeed! Here is the link to a list of desserts for the meetings since 2004, some with recipe links as well.
We have enjoyed some very impressive desserts as well as delectable and exotic foods at our meetings. There are a number of people in the group with remarkable culinary skill. Sometimes the treats served are connected to the book somehow, but not always. I have to admit that M&Ms are the one constant.