By Judy Goddess
Oct. 12 was one of those cold, damp, autumn evenings familiar to residents of the Sunset District. But spirits were high among the 12 members of the Sunset Library Book Club who gathered to celebrate the Club’s 28th anniversary and its first in-person gathering since the pandemic.
As she laid out a table of hardy snacks, Wing Chan, the adult services manager at the branch, shared her enthusiasm for the event.
Sunset Library Book Club members. Photo by Wing Chan.
“I am fortunate and honored to host this anniversary,” Chan said. “My staff and I are super excited that the members had a chance to get together in person in the library to celebrate this special event.”
To add to the festivities, Yuet Ly created buttons for the members with their years of membership highlighted on each button.
Twenty-eight years ago, the Sunset Library started two book clubs: one reading nonfiction, the other fiction. When the nonfiction group had trouble attracting members, the two groups merged and assumed its present form. One month they read fiction, the next nonfiction. And so it has gone for the last 28 years, making it the longest running book club in the library system.
There are various reasons for its longevity. Janet Tom, a recently retired librarian and the facilitator of the group for the past 23 years, attributes at least some of their longevity to “being a really nice club of profoundly good people.”
Several members discussed the group’s democratic values. Book selections are made a year in advance. Each fall, the members are encouraged to submit titles for the coming year – books that are available in the library. Janet then compiles these lists, including a brief summary of each book. The members then vote on the books.
“We’re democracy in action,” one member said, summarizing the selection method.
While all members suggest titles, Sunset resident Sally Winn, an avid reader and one of the first members of the club, submits the most extensive list. A former ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher at City College of San Francisco, Winn is active in at least five book clubs (clubs with her former colleagues, friends, church group and a human rights group. She also attends the “City Arts and Lectures” author talks and studies book lists, particularly the New York Times Book Section.
“I like this book club, it’s different than the other groups I’m in because the members bring different experiences and points of view,” she said.
The value of hearing different opinions was mentioned by everyone in the club.
Neil Crossan, the only male in the group, deliberately sought diversity when he started exploring book clubs. A member of a library book club when he lived in Philadelphia, Crossan shopped book clubs when he moved to San Francisco.
“I remember my first meeting with this group,” he reminisced. “An older woman attacked me for something I said about a book and she didn’t back down. That’s when I decided this is the group for me.” He has been attending for 10 years.
Some members have moved away, but that didn’t stop them from attending the party or the book discussion following it. Former members now living in Australia and Hawaii linked in via Zoom, as they had done most months through the pandemic.
“I like the rhythm, the monthly meetings, the commitment to read a book. It’s enriching and stimulating,” said Dennis Dorwick, one of the Australian members.
After an hour of snacks and conversation, the group moved inside. Over the last several days, Tom had created a comprehensive list of the hundreds of books read by the group over the years. Members eagerly gathered round, pointing out the book read at the first meeting they attended.
The discussion turned to that evening’s book, “The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power.” It is a nonfiction selection by Deidre Mask, exploring the importance of addresses and street names in structuring our world. Everyone admitted they would not have read this book if it hadn’t been that month’s selection, and yet they all thoroughly enjoyed it. When Winn asked what street each one had lived on as a child, members reflected on the significance of street and community in their lives, illustrating the theme of Mask’s book.
Though Tom retired from the library system last year, she continues on as a volunteer.
“I can’t let the girls down,” she said.
Book clubs are usually more social events than book discussions, she continued. This one is not like that.
“We usually meet for an hour or an hour and a half, and we discuss the book. Most members complete the book before the meeting, but even if they don’t, they come to hear what others think,” Tom said. One man dropped out because he didn’t like the way women always relate a book to something in their own lives.
“That’s true,” Tom said. “That’s how women discuss books and that’s the strength of the group.”
Over the years, Tom discovered that the members don’t like poetry, short stories, or self-help books, so those are never on the list.
The group meets the second Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. Until everyone feels safe meeting indoors, meetings will be held on Zoom. New members are welcomed. Next month it will be discussing the 2016 novel, “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi; the library has multiple copies but it’s a popular book so reserve early. The December book is the “1619 Project,” edited by Hannah-Jones, Roper, Silverman, and Silverstein.
If you are interested in attending a meeting or being added to the mailing list, contact Janet Tom at 415-674-1987 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your wonderful article about the Sunset Library Book Club is much appreciated. Yes, we do have a good time together while bringing diverse opinions about the month’s selection to the table. Zoom has allowed us to continue during the difficult times of the past three years. We couldn’t have done it without Janet’s fearless leadership, Neil’s technical wizardry and the enthusiasm of our members. Here’s to another 28 years!