“It’s their club. I just run it”: Book club leader fosters inclusion and belonging

Its their club. I just run it: Book club leader fosters inclusion and belonging

Reading journals in hand, pens at the ready and thoughts ready to spill, members of both the Grinnell and Brooklyn Book Club gather monthly to strictly talk books.

Twice a month, Michelle Graham, 46, devotes an hour of her time to this ritual. Nurse by day, the Brooklyn native moonlights as the founder and leader of the two book clubs. 

“It is one hour to get away. One hour for yourself one time a month is not that big of a commitment,” Graham said. She had come early to our interview at Saints Rest in her scrubs and a slightly disheveled bun from work – fittingly bringing a book to pass the time.

Graham’s club leader days began with the Brooklyn Book Club five years ago. Starting out rather informally and small in a local coffee shop, Graham said she would often meet a group of five or so to discuss that month’s book. But one of her co-workers and friends, Elizabeth Tigges, who made the short trek to Brooklyn for book club each month, was the push for Graham to start another book club in Grinnell. 

“Grinnell Book Club happened because of her,” Graham said.

Despite the two book clubs meeting on different days and taking place about a 15-minute drive away from each other, they share much in common. Each month, the clubs read a book decided upon by members through a Facebook vote or drawing. 

“It’s their club,” Graham said. “I just run it.”

And due to the separate meeting times of the groups, some members even attend both clubs in Brooklyn and Grinnell — Tigges included, said Graham. 

It is one hour to get away. One hour for yourself one time a month is not that big of a commitment.

— Michelle Graham, leader of the Grinnell and Brooklyn book clubs

Keeping old-school reading traditions alive, Graham, who said she prefers physical copies of books, likes to incorporate more “retro” bits of the reading experience into her clubs. Every month, she gives out a door prize via a drawing for one special attendee after they’ve filled their name out on a library return card. 

Yet, Graham said she still reads books in ways beyond the physical. In fact, she’s often reading three books at once in different formats — audiobook, digital and the old, reliable print. 

At the Grinnell club’s monthly meeting in March, fifteen or so women formed a circle in the Community Room of the Drake Community Library and took turns talking about Nikki Erlick’s novel, “The Measure.” Attendees whispered smaller side-conversations about personal reads as interim club leader for that month, Lauren McCammant, posed larger, thematic questions on Erlick’s novel. Some of the questions spurred conversations about life, death and real-world events, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

A few members shared how they hadn’t even read March’s book but still enjoyed attending the monthly meetings for a sense of belonging and discussing issues that affect their real lives.    

“I tell everybody, this is a safe space,” Graham said. “There is no judgment. There is no bickering. We don’t care about anybody’s reading level.”

After a 30-minute conversation on the assigned book for that month, the book club moves on to what they call their Roundtable. Each member gets a chance to talk about and recommend any books they’ve been reading in the past month. Recommendations spanned from contemporary romance to the occasional classic. Members seemed the most invested during Roundtable, with many vigorously writing titles down in their reading journals for future reference. 

The Grinnell and Brooklyn book clubs both met for their monthly meetings on the second Tuesday and first Thursday of the month, respectively. The next meeting for Grinnell is May 14 from 5 to 6 p.m. at Drake Community Library. For Brooklyn, it is May 2 from 5 to 6 p.m. at the Brooklyn Library. 

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