“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”–George Martin
By Anne D’Urso-Rose
At a time when reading for pleasure is on the decline, a Malden-based women’s book club believes there is much value to be found in the pages of a good book. As of October 2023, the club has read and discussed 186 books together. Members have come and gone since the group was formed 15 years ago, but several core members and later additions have two things in common: a love of reading, and a desire to read more.
“Rarely does a day go by when I don’t put aside time to read,” says Angela Allen, a current and original member of the group. “One day, my neighbor who often stopped to chat, asked “Do you like to read?” She mentioned her idea for a book club.” That was the spring of 2007.
The neighbor was Sue Scarborough, who at that time lived in the Oak Grove area of Malden. Scarborough was a principal of the elementary school at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, a private institution based in Cambridge.
“I started the group because I knew that some of my neighbors and friends liked to read, like me,” said Scarborough, who was reached for comment from her current residence in Virginia. “They were such a brilliant and thoughtful group of women, and although we came from different backgrounds and professions, I knew that our discussions would be thought-provoking and inspiring, and I was right!. Also, for me personally, I was working full time, and I needed an outlet to connect with other women.”
Scarborough also approached her neighbor, Busha Husak, who was initially reluctant.
“At that period in my life I felt so busy with my business and family that I couldn’t imagine adding one more commitment to my already stressful schedule,” Husak recalled.
Husak is grateful she seized the opportunity. “Now, over 15 years later, between the books that we have read and discussed together and the wonderful women that I have grown close to over the years, it has turned out to be an enormously enjoyable, enriching and fun experience for me.”
A graphic designer by trade, Husak designed a logo for the group when they created T-shirts as a goodbye gift to Scarborough before she moved in 2011. It was then the group dubbed themselves “The Scarborough Readers.”
Harriet Griffin, also a current and original member of the book group, reflects, “During my last couple years of teaching, many colleagues asked me what I planned to do in retirement. That was easy. I was going to read more books, of course! And as Horton the Elephant said, I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. Books have always been one of my greatest joys.”
Yet Griffin admits she had previously avoided joining book clubs. “I don’t like to be told to do anything, including what books to read! I finally relented because, of course, I loved talking with friends about books. And book group has been such a great opportunity to pick up something I might never choose on my own.”
Though all the members love to read, the distractions of life can get in the way. A book club provides a certain structure, as expressed by Robin Inman, who joined the group in 2019.
“I wanted to join a book club because it would force me to read more books,” says Inman. “Basically it imposes discipline on me. It also requires me to read books which I may never have heard of, or would not have chosen on my own.”
Each member in the club cites the variety of books chosen as a particular strength. Their archive list includes history, a variety of non-fiction, memoirs, many novels and a book of poetry. There are light topics, heavy topics, young adult books, the occasional mystery or science fiction, and even a self-help book. The group chooses a classic work of literature about once a year. And every year since the launch of the Malden Reads program in 2011, the group reads the “One City: One Book” selection.
“I don’t need a book group to suggest another book for me to read,” says Ewa Erdman, who joined the group in 2011. “The list I carry with me at all times has more titles on it than I will ever get to. But more often than not, I would not have read or chosen what the other members put before me. I think that’s very healthy; it stirs the pot.”
Reading a variety of books can result in new learning and rich discussions.
“It can broaden my horizons, make me familiar with new authors or genres, and take me out of my comfort zone,” says Inman. “All books have the power to shed light on the human experience, entertain, give us more empathy, teach things, or generally make us feel and think.”
While typically we read a book on our own, being in a book club means many individuals are reading the same book at the same time. The group discussion can make all the difference in one’s experience of the book.
“Either love it or hate it, I really appreciate being able to discuss a book, and hear the points of view of my friends,” says SüSi Ecker, who joined the group in 2014. “Each of us sees things so differently and can add a lot to my understanding of the story.”
“I’m the interloper who crossed the border from Melrose on the invitation to join the club,” says Lisa Tiemann, who joined in 2015. “I was looking to find friends with whom to share and discuss ideas. We read a variety of texts, some heavier and some lighter, but rich conversation always results. Left to my own devices, my personal reading style is more of a binge—read fast, abandon the book and then rather soon afterwards forget it. With the chance for discussion, I engage more vigorously and have a lasting memory of what I’ve read!”
Sometimes members approach a work of literature reluctantly. Candace Julyan, who joined in 2008, admits she’s not always up for a certain selection.
“There have definitely been books that I would not have chosen on my own and can be fairly unenthusiastic as I’m reading them,” says Julyan. “But I am amazed in our discussions when the other members uncover ideas or connections that I never saw. Often those discussions can send me back to re-read passages with a new eye.”
Julyan uses the classic work of Harriet Beecher Stowe as an example. “Perhaps the biggest surprise for me of all the books we read is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It’s a book that everyone has heard of and I suspect few have read. I was actually dreading reading it as I thought it would be dull and dated. Instead I was fascinated at both the content and the writing. Reading it was an unexpected treat.”
Griffin draws from her teaching experience to describe why the group’s discussion is meaningful. “I logged many years as a reading teacher and literacy specialist. We taught kids to think about three major connections we make when reading: books to self, books to other books, and books to the world. This is what readers do. In our book group discussions, our connections become deeper, and leave us wanting for more.”
Book choices often spur discussion on topical issues that we may all be struggling to understand more fully.
“I am the oldest member of our group,” Erdman says. “And arguably the crankiest. By virtue of both age and personality, I feel as though I present oppositional points of view more often than other members. Thankfully, my views and I are tolerated by the group, and although we may disagree, as the saying goes, it is not disagreeable.”
On several memorable occasions, the author of a particular book selection has visited the group for the discussion. Pre-Covid, those visits were exclusively in person. The use of Zoom has widened the possibilities to include authors that live further away.
Angela Allen shares her excitement about author visits and the insights that are gleaned from these direct personal encounters.
“We read ‘Lands of Lost Borders’ by Kate Harris,” says Allen. “And she Zoomed with us from a cabin where she lives now in the Yukon! From her book, we learned about her bicycle trip on the Silk Road from Turkey to India. We talked about her courage in traveling with a friend to such isolated locations.”
It was originally a connection made in a yoga class between Harris and Ecker that, years later, resulted in this opportunity. The high end bicycle shop where Ecker’s husband works, provided the bicycle for Harris’s journey on the Silk Road.
“We also read the book “Afterheat” by local author CD Collins,” continues Allen. “And she came to our discussion. We asked why she chose to write a novel instead of an autobiography when her story was so personal. She said, ‘I write fiction so I can tell the truth.’ Her response was thought-provoking and has stayed with me.”
The process of choosing which books to read has gone through many iterations. Whereas it used to be a group decision process or, at times, a “choose from the hat” approach, the group has eventually settled on a cycle where one person selects the book each month.
“I actually am happiest with this current selection process,” says Julyan. “I like the notion that each of us has both the honor and the responsibility for choosing what we will read.”
“I take the book choice selection process very seriously,” says Erdman. “Each of us only gets to pick a book about once a year. I desperately want the others to like the book I have chosen, or at the very least, to think it was a profitable read for them.”
Like everything else in life, the Covid pandemic had its effect on the book club..
“During COVID we pivoted to meeting on Zoom, unlike some other book clubs which folded entirely,” says Inman. “While Zoom has served its purpose and kept us together, I would really prefer to go back to meeting in person.”
Though the group stays connected through a more personal email chain and many members meet outside the group, other members deal with personal issues that make Zoom the best alternative for now. The group is considering various options going forward.
“Going virtual shortened our meetings considerably,” says Julyan. “Pre-COVID, they always involved food and drink and socializing. However, I think that our discussions of the book itself have largely been unchanged.”
All members value deeply the connection they’ve sustained even through the pandemic.
“I love being a part of our amazing group,” says Griffin. “Reading the monthly selections and showing up for book group are priorities for me. A huge bonus has been the cultivation of great friendships. Our members share a lot, and we know each other well. We fondly remember the members who have had to move on from the group and often wonder what they would have contributed to the discussion of a particular book.”
Many aspects of modern life compete with the attention needed to read a book, yet experts note that “books still represent the best format for deep, sustained engagement with an idea or story.”
Members of the Scarborough Readers, each in their own way, experience the current-day distractions that can make reading books difficult, but affirm that it’s worth making time to read books regularly.
“With so many competing thoughts, events, circumstances, obligations, you put reading on a back burner,” says Erdman. “That’s a big mistake, I think. Reading should be a priority. Reading fills the gaps in us. We understand more, and better. We are entertained and relaxed, or stimulated. We think.”
When Scarborough was reached for comment on this story, she stated, “I feel extremely honored that the group continues on today and that other women are benefitting from sharing ideas, reading together, and supporting each other. It makes me feel that the spirit of friendship, camaraderie, and joy of reading that led me to start the group lives on.”
– Anne D’Urso-Rose is the Associate Director at Urban Media Arts and a contributing journalist for Neighborhood View. She joined the Scarborough Readers in 2008.
Here is a link to the book group’s archive reading list.
Current members of The Scarborough Readers: Angela Allen*, Anne D’Urso-Rose, SüSi Ecker, Ewa Erdman, Harriet Griffin*, Busha Husak*, Robin Inman, Candace Julyan, Lisa Tiemann.
Previous members: Deborah Brown*, Martha Coates, Marie Coulanges, Cathy Fallon, Maureen Holland*, Joanne Iovino* (in memoriam), Diane Linde (in memoriam), Julie O’Neill, Sue Scarborough*.
(* – denotes original member)