Pair of area book groups opens a page to discussion, introspection, inspiration

By Melissa Hirschl

Good books possess magic. In addition to vicariously transporting us to romantic, exotic and thrilling places, they add depth and meaning to our lives.

Characters and storylines have the power to elicit emotions that not only probe our intellect but challenge our paradigms. An added perk of an engaging story is its power to serve as a prolific inspiration for debate and discussion.

For those who thrive on reliving their reading experience with like-minded others, we’ve profiled two monthly book discussion groups that are held at the Tempe Library once a month. Each one encompasses a distinct genre:

Agents of Change members share a passion for contemporary fiction and non-fiction, while members of the Great Books Discussion Club relish immersing themselves in the classics.

Agents of Change

(Meets second Thursday of month, 7p.m. in Youth section)

Originally called the “Strong Woman Discussion Group,” Agents of Change focuses on tackling fiction and non-fiction with the theme of change as the backdrop.

“The best discussions,” says Betty Murphy, facilitator of the group, “are when people don’t agree on a book. It’s nice to have the interplay of ideas; the group is more interesting then.”

Murphy, who works for an offset printing firm during the day, welcomes the change of pace that her library position allows her.

“I have a lot of sources at my disposal for getting material on the books we read,” she explains. “I use electronic databases to look up information of authors, reviews, and book interviews. Plus there’s always the library’s excellent resources; I enjoy pointing out to people what they might not know about an author.”

Usually discussions provide debate, in addition to provocative and scintillating discussions. The talk on Women Who Run with the Wolves, for instance, drew 35 women, which was an impressive number.

On rare occasions, a book might not match up to expectations. Members recently read the mystery book Skin Tight, which members found didn’t lend easily to discussion. Other books, according to Murphy, light a real fire for discussion, such as the March reading of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Written by Iranian professor Azar Nafisi, this book details the author’s experiences of trying to bring experiences of Western culture to females.

April is an especially exciting time for the group. That’s when the group teams up with Valley libraries, bookstores and media to promote one book in hopes that many people will be encouraged to read the book at the same time.

Last Spring’s book was the Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; the story of a 16-year-old boy from India who is set adrift in a boat with a Bengal tiger.

“This book was intense, and had a lot of religious significance,” says Murphy; “everyone had a different take on the book. We all wanted to re-read parts that people brought up in discussion. The most rewarding part of being in this group is that I can enjoy a book and go back and look up parts that reflect other people’s perspectives.”

The book scheduled for August is The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd.

Great Books Discussion Group

(Meets the second and fourth Tuesdays at 7 p.m. in Youth section)

If the most recent classic book you’ve read was back in seventh grade, it may be time to get in touch with your “inner Aristotle”.

Stop by this cordial and intellectually fertile group to find out what’s on tap for the coming year. These members digest weighty classics in addition to plays, essays, the Bible, poetry and non-fiction. All material is part of the University of Chicago’s Great Book Foundation. Founded in 1947, the foundation comprises more than 850 groups meeting in homes, libraries and community centers.

Husband and wife team Kathy and Don Dietz (both retired professors) have been the Tempe group’s facilitators since the group’s inception 10 years ago.

“Our group,” explains Kathy, “not only reads older classic books like Emma by Jane Austin, or The Prince by Machiavelli, but contemporary ones as well, such as Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.”

When facilitating the class, the Dietzs refer to discussion guides that have been provided by a collaborative effort between GBF and Penguin Books. The guides feature essays and interpretive questions to keep discussions going strong. In addition they provide author biographies and related titles. 

Another way to keep things upbeat is to occasionally have a different kind of evening. “Sometimes,” says Kathy, “we’ll take a night out and have a poetry night where everyone brings their favorite poetry or even something they’ve written.

“In the past we’ve had other diversions, such as the times Don (who was a professor of Spanish) brought in books such as Don Quixote. We got through the first book and everyone loved it so much we also read the second.

“We ended up reading the entire work of Don Quixote. Another fun thing we do is sometimes see a play that is connected to what we are reading, such as Man of La Mancha.”

The group includes members with diverse backgrounds, such as professors, a pipefitter, engineers, drug representatives, business people—even a former CIA agent.

“These people are so well read,” says Don. “It’s just amazing. After the session, we usually go to JB’s restaurant at Southern and McClintock to socialize and talk some more, although we frequently end up talking about politics.

The group will be discussing The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton at its next meeting. For information on more book groups, classes and special events, look at the Tempe Library website at www.tempe.gov/library/events/.

You can find more information on the Great Books Foundation at www.greatbooks.org. The foundation maintains an online registry of more than 900 groups in 48 states.