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Turning A New Leaf

The Columbus Dispatch (Newspaper) - 2/11/2007 by Chelsea J . Carter
Book clubs of today are forgoing the Oprah Winfrey model of "Read and discuss" and getting creative about how they meet, read and socialize over books.

"I used to think, if Oprah decided not to do her show, there would be a decline in book clubs," said Diana Loevy, author of The Book Club Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Reading Group Experience.

"But now I donít think so. Book clubs are evolving. They are creating social units that really work. They serve a social function."

In central Ohio, a mystery-book club will meet at the Barnes & Noble on Polaris Parkway to discuss T. Jefferson Parkerís The Fallen, and a club for non-native speakers of English will meet at the Upper Arlington Public Library to discuss Jane Sutcliffeís biography of John F. Kennedy.

Even the Columbus Museum of Art has entered the book-club business, hosting Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon discussions of books about art, both fiction and nonfiction.

"We sent up a trial balloon with a book discussion of The Da Vinci Code and filled the auditorium," said Nancy Turner, assistant to Executive Director Nannette V. Maciejunes.

The museumís book club has expanded, and its acclaim has spread beyond Columbus, Turner said.

"Susan Vreeland (Girl in Hyacinth Blue) heard good things about our book club and came to the museum on the last day of our Renoir exhibit," she said.

"Susan was doing a book on Renoir and used an anecdote that Nannette gave her in the book."

The Next Chapter Book Clubs for readers with mental disabilities was launched in 2002 by Thomas Fish of the Nisonger Center at Ohio State University. It has grown to 31 clubs, including 16 in central Ohio.

Nationwide, book clubs have become networking tools for young professionals. In Hollywood, a group of production assistants formed a reading group to discuss books about the movies or TV shows on which they work. In New York, a group of wouldbe playwrights gathers to read published plays and make suggestions about membersí works.

Norman Hicks founded Readerís Circle, a Web site designed to offer a way to meet people after graduating from college.

Rather than have a group read one book following a structured format, Readerís Circle promotes bringing people together in public settings, such as coffeehouses, to discuss various books at once.

"I think a lot of people were drawn to it because they could read what they want, talk about it and get suggestions for other books," said Hicks, 29.

The same idea lies behind PaperBackSwap.com, an online club that allows members to trade their books with others. The site also makes a book-of-the-month selection and offers live online chats for its members to discuss books, said founder Richard Pickering of Atlanta. Pickering called it cost-effective for participants who canít afford to buy new books routinely. Since its inception, PaperBack Swap.com has amassed a library of 900,000 books and sees its users trade about 30,000 books a month, Pickering said. With the decrease in book sales, bookstores large and small have begun using the Internet and technology, such as the portable audio player, to sell books for downloading. And they have started to create online book clubs to link readers. But it is still the face-to-face meeting, the social aspect, that seems to drive the book-club culture ó and its success or failure. Diane Reichwein, a lawyer with the Porter Wright Morris & Arthur law firm in Columbus, has been in the same book club for 20 years. "We still have four or five original members," Reichwein said, "and usually between 10 and 12 total members. Some folks have rotated out when they moved away or because job or family commitments made it impossible for them to attend. "Iím not sure if we initially conceived of it as more social than literary, but itís certainly been both over the years." The group is "laid-back, which maybe is why weíve been together for so long." "The original Ďrules,í " she said, "were no pop psychology or science fiction, but weíve violated both, so I think itís official: We are a book club with no rules."

Has her club evolved?

"Not in the way we operate as a club," Reichwein said. "But over the years weíve all become much closer friends, so, in that way, we have evolved." Dispatch Reporter Bill Eichenberger contributed to this story.