The Best Book Club In The Land

After 40 years, 360 books, countless kids, grandchildren, and loads of desserts, Ottawa’s Book Friends ’72, tell Janet Wilson about their big win and the secret to their success.

Book Friends ’72 book club has won a Random House of Canada contest. Members include, back row from left: Jo Weston, Margaret Coleman, Ellen Carnegie, Sharron Hanna. Front row from left: Barbara Dorrell, Betty Brakel, Gail Gaffney, Barbara Kates, Dagmar Forget, Penny Heath Eves, Ellen McLeod and Elizabeth Weber. Photo by: Chris Mikula, Ottawa Citizen

 

The table is set with tea, coffee, delicious homemade sweets, cheese and fruit while bubbling chatter fills Margaret Coleman’s sunlit New Edinburgh condo. The mood is festive and warm as 10 women greet one another after the holidays and sit down to discuss their big news.

Forty years after forming a book club in Ottawa, the group known as Book Friends ’72, was named the winner in December of the Book Clubs are Beautiful contest by Random House of Canada. The publishing company will sponsor the club for one year, working with them on their book selections and providing up to 10 copies of each chosen book.

“We are so pumped,” says Sharron Hanna.

“We wanted to celebrate our 40th anniversary and now we are in a big way. We love reading. We’re basically addicted to books and addicts need other addicts.”

The group was looking for a way to mark the milestone and stumbled across the contest. Hanna credits many of the members for contributing to their winning submission by offering humorous tidbits about themselves and the group.

They’ve read 360 books, been tempted by 1,200 other titles, raised 35 children and count 65 grandchildren among their rank.

They’ve lost two members to breast cancer, one to an aneurysm, dispensed with two husbands and enjoyed 38 potluck dinner parties each June.

Contest judges, who included authors Kelley Armstrong, Terry Fallis, Brian Francis, Gretchen Rubin and Will Schwalbe, had to sift through more than 300 entries. Their quest was to determine which club they would most like to join.

“Random House of Canada is thrilled to sponsor the Book Friends ’72 book club for all of their 2013 meetings. The judges agreed that this book club is extraordinary for having been active for so many years, and it’s clear that they are a lively group of book lovers,” says Ainsley Sparkes of Random House.

“The book club has become central to the lives of many of us,” says Margaret Coleman. “I started in 1974, I think, and apart from the times we have been out of town, I have really enjoyed it.”

Book Friends '72 book club shown here in 1982

Ottawa real estate agent Mary Lindsay, a member for 32 years, says her experience with the club has been an educational one.

“The women are all so darn bright. I have street smarts, but these women are academics and so articulate. You don’t want to miss a meeting because you learn so much.”

Book Friends ‘72 is made up of women from their mid-60s to mid-70s who live throughout the Ottawa area. Most of the 15 members are retired, but many have part-time jobs or volunteer. Some belong to other book clubs in their respective neighbourhoods.

The one thing they all agree upon is that to have a successful club you need to stick to a format. At the end of each summer, they gather at Gail Gaffney’s home to select nine titles for the upcoming season. Each member suggests four or five books that they must have read and then the voting and lobbying begins until they’ve got their list. A hostess and presenter for each month is also selected at this time.

“When it’s your turn to present a book you can spend hours upon hours researching the book, the author and reading reviews. We don’t get many duds and the discussion is always good,” Lindsay says.

The group meets the first Monday afternoon of every month and discussions can last anywhere from two to four hours. The books often have a women’s focus, but just about every topic tickles their fancy including family, society and politics. Over the years, authors on their list have attended a meeting or contacted them by phone or email.

“The fact that we are presented with a list of titles each year means that we are exposed to books that we normally would not even pick up at all. Even when I don’t like the book, it is interesting to listen to the discussion to find out what other members liked or what I missed in reading the book,” says Betty Brakel.

Elizabeth Weber, one of the club’s founding members, says the group offered support to a “housebound, young mother-to-be” in the 1970s.

“I was feeling rather isolated, as my husband was often away for long periods of time with work. After our baby was born, there were moments when I felt like a hostage, having to be housebound in the middle of winter in a new city with few social connections. Much as I loved my new role as a mother, I was missing adult company and intellectual stimulation.

“Fortunately, I found other stay-at-home moms who were interested in creating a book club. To read a book, knowing that I would be discussing it with other women, was something to look forward to each month. Something just for me,” Weber says.

Lindsay credits the group’s longevity to a lack of gossip.

“We aren’t best friends so there isn’t a hint of gossip. I think this is part of the reason why we’ve lasted so long,” Lindsay says.

Read the winning entries and comments from the judges: retreatbyrandomhouse.ca/book-clubs-are-beautiful

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