Building community through books

BIBLIOPHILES: Malaprop's Wednesday night book group, the second-oldest book club sponsored by the local shop, has been meeting monthly for over 13 years. Photo courtesy of Jay Jacoby

Reading is a solitary pleasure. But for many locals, Asheville book clubs and reading groups turn the individual experience into a community-building sport.

“It’s delightful to get together with people and talk about books,” says Sarah Gransee, branch services manager for Buncombe County Public Libraries. Gransee helps track 12 book clubs that meet monthly at Pack Memorial Library as well as the county’s other 11 branches.

These clubs, Gransee notes, are different from a neighborhood or friends book club. “You’re not self-selecting people you already know; you’re meeting new people,” she explains. “[It’s] a wonderful way to connect and empower the community.”

But libraries are not alone in promoting community through literature. Nor do librarians work in a bubble. On Jan. 24, Jen Waite, Pack’s specialist for adult programs, organized the headquarters’ first book club fair inside Lord Auditorium. Nearly 50 guests attended and learned about opportunities to join various community reading groups. Representatives from the YMI Cultural Center and the Noir Collective AVL, the Wilma Dykeman Legacy, Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, the N.C. Arboretum, Firestorm Bookstore & Coffee and the Asheville Art Museum attended.


“The concept,” says Waite, “was to bring together as many book clubs as we could find that are open to the public and put them all in one spot, so people can see what’s available in the community and find the book club that might fit them the best.”

A different approach

Meeting in small groups to discuss a new book each month is how clubs featured at the book club fair operate. Some choose works of general interest. Others focus on a theme or genre such as history, mysteries, science fiction or the Black experience.

But at UNC Asheville, The Common Word Community Read takes a different approach. Participants dig deeply into a single book over three months during each academic semester. Along with discussion, the series features lectures by experts on the book’s topic as well as conversations with some of the authors. 

Wiley Cash, a New York Times bestselling novelist and UNCA’s writer-in-residence, created the series in fall 2021 in an effort to bring together the campus and the broader community. “That was during the pandemic,” he says. “Obviously, we weren’t having events in person. We had our lectures virtually and we did them during the noon hour, hoping to get people on their lunch breaks to open up their laptops, sit at their desks and engage.”

While Cash didn’t track participation, he noted that the Common Word’s private Facebook page drew 181 followers.

Each fall, Cash says, “we choose a book that speaks to the contemporary social moment.” The 2021 selection, Isabel Wilkerson‘s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, analyzed racism in the U.S. as a system of social stratification. North Carolina author Jason Mott‘s Hell of a Book — a seriocomic, semiautobiographical novel about a Black author’s adventures on a book tour — was the fall selection. 

“In the spring of each year, we try to do a book with some local relevance,” Cash continues. “Last spring, we did The Last Castle, about the Biltmore House, by [Asheville resident] Denise Kiernan. Denise joined us on campus for the final event. This semester we’re doing The Other Dr. Gilmer: Two Men, a Murder, and an Unlikely Fight for Justice.”

The Common Word begins Monday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m., with the lecture “How to Get Away with (Writing About) Murder,” by Laura Meadows, UNCA assistant professor of mass communication. The event takes place at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s Manheimer Room and will also be available on Zoom. Meadows’ talk will address the explosion of true crime narratives in popular culture. 

In March, Laura Jones, associate professor of health and wellness, lectures on “Mental Health Behind Bars: The Role of Mental Health in the U.S. Legal System.” The series concludes in April with a conversation between Cash and the book’s author, Dr. Benjamin Gilmer.

Having their say

When Kathleen Eskew retired to Asheville in 2008, she initially joined seven reading groups. “All were very different,” she says. “I would highly recommend visiting a few to determine which one clicks for you.”

Today, Eskew has narrowed her commitments to two library book clubs. One reads a miscellany of fiction, nonfiction and short stories. The other, called Land of the Sky 101, is hosted by Pack’s Buncombe County Special Collections librarians and explores regional history with topics that stretch from ancient times to the late 20th century revitalization of downtown Asheville. 

“I enjoy the opportunity to be introduced to many books that I may not have selected,” Eskew says. “Many times, we continue the discussion over lunch after the meeting. Every time I attend a book club meeting, I come away with many memorable and meaningful experiences.”

Meanwhile, Alex Pritchard, a senior mass communication major at UNCA, participates in the Common Word series even with a busy class schedule. “I love to take advantage of programs like this that give me a chance to learn things outside of the classroom,” she says.

Pritchard enjoys the way Cash chooses the speakers. “For example, last semester’s selection, Hell of a Book, is about an author on a book tour. Dr. Cash invited the co-founders of [Gold Leaf Literary] to come and speak about what it’s like to promote a book.”

For this semester’s pick, The Other Dr. Gilmer, Pritchard is looking forward to Laura Meadows’ presentation about true crime writing. “She is one of my favorite professors,” she says. “So, you have topics that are related to their corresponding selections, but that allow these speakers to use their expertise and engage the audience.”


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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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