Lessons from ‘Notable Books: The Book Club Led by English Professors’

By Stephenee Borelli, librarian, Sacramento Public Library

When you enter the Central branch of the Sacramento Public Library, you’ll see a poster that reads: “Notable Books: The Book Club Led by English Professors. Read the classics the way you’ve always wanted. No papers. No tests. No tuition.”

The idea for the program came about when I was a children’s librarian moonlighting as a graduate student of English at California State University, Sacramento. I was taking David Bell’s popular Jane Austen class. Three in the class were auditing the course for no credit—and I completely understood why. I was an English student for the same reason. I didn’t need the degree; I already had my professional degree. I was studying English for the simple pleasure of reading great books, participating in interesting discussions and learning new things. It dawned on me that auditing an English class was the ultimate book club. The kind of book club I would want to be in. The kind of book club I could host at my library. Hmmm.

It was less than a month after graduation when I contacted Bell to tell him about my idea for an adult literary program series featuring the works of Jane Austen. I explained that we would read each of Austen’s six novels over six months. Professors and experts would give talks to help readers understand Austen’s world and novels. It would run every other Sunday at the Central Library and it would be free and open to the public. And it would be called “How Austentatious!”

As luck would have it, Bell would be retired and ready to volunteer in time for the kickoff the following year. We opened with an introduction to Jane Austen’s life and Sense and Sensibility by Bell, coupled with an entertaining lecture about Regency-era etiquette by his colleague, Rachel Dodge. Over 200 people came. The room had been set for 150. The audience spilled out into another room equipped with a sound system. Some sat on the floor. Some wrote in their laps. And they relished every moment.

For six months hundreds of “Janeites” read great books, heard informative lectures and participated in lively discussions led by graduate students hand-selected by Bell. They went on carriage rides, learned English country dancing and saw a Regency fashion show. Well-attended and of high caliber, “How Austentatious” was huge and intense, but it was finite.

There was a palpable sadness as the end of “How Austentatious” approached. We heard from our participants: “We must have more! What’s next?” We couldn’t just continue to offer Jane Austen programs. Austen is great and all, but studying Austen isn’t a mission of the library. It is however, a mission of the Jane Austen Society of North America; so, as a civilian, I started a Greater Sacramento chapter. And as a librarian I started "Notable Books" so great literary programs could continue. That was three years ago.

Whether short stories, novels, or plays, "Notable Books" are each read over two months. During the first meeting, a guest speaker gives a presentation about the author and the book — avoiding spoilers. Then everyone returns for a follow-up talk and discussion. On some occasions, to help solidify the reader’s connection to the literature, we have collaborated with local dance and theatre companies. For example, last year, Sacramento Ballet Artistic Director Ron Cunningham brought dancers from his company to illustrate how he would bring the Great Gatsby to life as a ballet, while Andrea Lagomarsino, a high school English teacher and Bell’s former student, revealed mythology elements in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

We still enjoy programming like “How Austentatious” offered with annual sub-series of programs. In 2012 “Full Circle” explored J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings complete with a singing performance by Tom Bombadil, a sword demonstration and a Tengwar writing lesson. In 2013 “How Outlandish” celebrated the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Fans pondered time-travel with an astrophysicist, learned about whisky from a certified master, and boarded a replica tall ship — yes, we took a field trip.

Right now we are enjoying the works of Nobel Prize-winner and short-story master Alice Munro. Our last audience was treated to an adult storytime-reading of “Miles City, Montana” by myself. Finally, being a children’s librarian has come in handy for this series.

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