The Matinee Book Club: Hashing It Out, One Novel at a Time

A handful of Matinee Book Club members share a quiet moment in the library. (photo by Mel Sauerbeck)

In December, the Matinee Book Club will be discussing its 50th novel! Impressed? I sure the heck am. If you climbed Mt. Everest, I would be less impressed. After our first meeting back in November 2019, I was ready to quit the whole thing.

Here’s how it began. I had just finished reading another novel, and I was left with many unanswered questions about it. I wanted to discuss said novel with someone—anyone—but I was alone on my couch. I decided that something had to change.

I went to the Fairfield Public Library and walked straight into the office of Rebecca Johnson, the former director.

“Yes, David?” she said, diverting her attention away from vital library work, I presumed.

“I want to start a book club,” I said.

The computer went off and I had her undivided attention. We sat in that room for over an hour, hashing out what would soon become the Matinee Book Club.

“But how, oh how, will we get copies of the book?” I pleaded, knowing there were no bookstores close by, and I certainly didn’t want members to have to purchase books.

“I have a solution,” Rebecca said, her Supergirl cape flapping in the wind from the desk fan.

She told me about the Interlibrary Loan program, through which we could request books from various libraries within Iowa. We could choose the book in advance and copies would be mailed to us.

“Wow.” Could it be? Could it actually happen?

On October 2, 2019, all interested parties met. I didn’t want it to be my book club, so the idea was to have an initial meeting to discuss what kind of book club everyone wanted. We had a good turnout. We were all talking at once and interrupting each other. Basically, we were spitballing.

“How long does a book club meeting usually last?” I asked a veteran book clubber.

“Depends if there’s wine or not,” she replied.

Well, I knew there was no wine at the library, so we decided on two hours. We wanted to read “thought-provoking books,” books under 350 pages, and every member would get to share thoughts on the book for five minutes without interruption. Afterwards, we would have group discussion (where I was secretly hoping fireworks would fly). Most importantly, every member would get a chance to choose a book. So, the Matinee Book Club was formed as democratically as we could manage.

I had already chosen the first book. The library generously purchased the books, and all present got a free copy of The Girls by Emma Cline. We would meet on November 6th for our first official discussion. I could hardly wait.

A month later, we met in the library conference room. A full house. But the vibe had changed. The room felt stiff, suffocating. Should I open a window? I welcomed everyone, and since I had chosen the book, we decided I should go last. The gentleman to my right began.

“I never finished it,” he said. “I got two chapters in and gave up on it.”

Next. “I read it but did not like it. It was too disturbing and I wasn’t sure what the point was.”

Next. “It gave me bloody nightmares,” our English friend said. “Sorry, did not finish.”

I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper into my chair. Where was the passion, the insight, the fireworks? The next person gave it a “Meh.”

I felt personally assaulted. Why? I didn’t write the darn book. Why was I getting so sensitive? I guess a fictionalized account of the Manson family just wasn’t a crowd favorite.

Finally, a few members said that they kind of liked it. But nothing could raise my spirits. One member said it was written poorly and was hoping we would be reading books of higher quality. When I finally got to speak, I read a well-written paragraph from the book, hoping to change their minds. One man stood up and walked out of the room, never to return again.

The woman who had mentioned the wine leaned over and whispered, “I have to leave early. Can I get the next book?”

I told her it was at the front desk. She left, and most of the group followed her out the door. I was waiting for them to return. They never did.

Only four of the original 13 remained to discuss the book at length.

When I got home, I collapsed on the couch. Defeated. “I’m done with book clubs,” I said.

Remarkably, my wounds healed and I returned in December. The next novel, Stoner by John Williams, got a much more favorable review. My faith returned.

A few months later Covid hit. The library had to close their doors. The meeting in March of 2020 was conducted via conference call. It was hard to know when someone had finished talking. We were either talking over each other or not talking at all.

Our next meeting was at Jefferson County Park at the pavilion by the lake. But when I showed up early to set the meeting up, other park visitors were already there. On a Wednesday afternoon?!! How dare they! I stood there directing book club traffic to another pavilion. An open picnic table became our new home throughout the summer and fall. With winter approaching, we relocated to a small storefront on the town square until the library was able to reopen.

Over the years, we’ve been through Covid, heart attacks, cancer, and other serious setbacks. We’ve discussed racism, drug addiction, war, plagues, autism, and many other controversial issues. Sometimes our meetings get a little heated, but we’re never unkind. We’ve read lighter books, a YA novel, and one nonfiction book because I forgot to tell a new member we read fiction only. We’ve read Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. We’ve read books by authors from India, Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam, Mexico. and many other countries.

You never know what book will show up next. Sometimes you get a book you’ve never heard of and you are pleasantly surprised. You might even read another book from that author. On the other hand, you might dislike the book so much that each page feels like it weighs ten pounds.

“I love being introduced to books I might not otherwise have read,” says member Richard Kurtz. “I love hearing other members’ perspectives and insights on the chosen books.”

And really, what we all want is a book that will stimulate conversation, opinions, and all-out bad behavior. Just kidding. But I do think we all like a little heated discussion to liven things up.

“I try to find something that will captivate the readers and make them think,” says member Shane Harris. “I look for a book that will produce a good discussion.”

So . . . as Book #50 approaches, I am blown away. The books keep showing up, and so do we.

The Matinee Book Club is an adult program sponsored by the Fairfield Public Library. Meetings are held on the first Wednesday of every month at 1:30 p.m.