Literary Salvation?

A new foundation seeks to bolster the library system by reaching out to book clubs

The Tucson-Pima Public Library was one of the best public library systems in the United States 25 years ago; now, after years of budget cuts, it's not. But if the Tucson-Pima Library Foundation has anything to say about it, the library will rise again.

Last year, the foundation established an endowment to cushion the library from economic downturns and raids by local politicians, and created a coalition to help build it, the Tucson-Pima Library Foundation Circle of Book Clubs. The circle presents its first fundraiser on Tuesday, Nov. 1, a tea featuring popular Tucson author and speaker Bonnie Marson. The event is open to the public, and 95 percent of the proceeds will go to the endowment fund.

The Circle of Book Clubs came into being when the foundation board had the smart idea of locating the library's core constituency, the passionate readers of Pima County, by reaching out to the area's book groups. No one knew how many groups there were, or how they would respond to an invitation to band together. The enticement offered was a chance for each club to get its three favorite titles placed on a master list, and then get a copy of that list once it was compiled.

Every book club, like every individual reader, faces the same nagging, recurring question: What to read next? More than 90 clubs responded to the appeal; the circle's list of recommendations is now five pages long.

"Even with all the new media, you still have to hear about a book, I find," says Vikki Spritz, 48, a circle board member and participant in four--yes, four--book clubs. "There are a few writers whose new novels I always look for, but usually, I get ideas from other readers."

One of her clubs, a group of women, has been together for 22 years. "One of our members died last year. That has been very hard. It's so strange to meet without her."

Another group Spritz belongs to has been active for about five years, while the newest is one she started for parents at her daughter's school. Those three are fairly unstructured, with members choosing books and meeting dates more or less by consensus. The fourth club she attends, though, is run by Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon at Temple Emanu-El.

"He picks the books for that--some fiction, some nonfiction, some poetry--and it's more like a class. It's very satisfying to have someone who's so learned leading the discussion," says Spritz.

The Circle of Book Clubs is always looking for new groups, and anticipates offering regular book-centered fundraising events in the future.

"My own favorite idea," Spritz says, "is a potluck and book-exchange on the grounds of one of the libraries. Bring a dish, and bring books you've read and want to trade. We're thinking we might do that for our spring event."

Book swaps would help solve yet another problem of the print-addicted--the battle for shelf-space.

"I'm a big Bookmans person, myself," says Spritz. "You have to keep moving things out, or they'd take over your house completely. Trading is the solution. I'm all for supporting writers by buying new hardbacks, and I often do, but when it comes down to it, I don't care what shape a book is in."

And the allure of the book group?

"It's a social thing, of course, and that's nice. My mother was a librarian, and my parents belonged to a couples' book group when I was growing up--it was a way to get together with a little structure.

"But it also gives structure to your reading," she adds. "And it's fascinating to hear what other people get out of what you've read. It's sometimes completely surprising."

What about the mother of all book groups?

"Well," Spritz says, "it's wonderful what Oprah has done to get people reading, of course, but I read a few of her choices, and there was a lot of dreariness there. You know, despair for everyone. I like variety. I have a friend who's in a group that just reads women authors, and I think, well, that's fine, but isn't it limiting?"

Finally, Spritz says, it's all about pleasure.

"Sharing the pure pleasure of curling up with a good book--that and supporting the library is what the circle is about."

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