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The personalities of book clubs

The beauty of book clubs is that each one is different, customized to exactly fit its members: Women fascinated by farming. Men bonded by mysteries. Couples loving classics.

No one understands book club personalities better than Anita Isser and Barbara Hopfinger, two women tethered to Bloomsbury Books in novel ways.

Isser is the independent bookstore's manager who keeps track of 170 Ashland- and Medford-based book groups.

Group leaders register with Isser, who assigns the club a number and enters the club's name — Bad Girls Book Club, Siskiyou Sleuths — in a loose-leaf binder along with the book selection for that month or the year, depending on how the group plans. Members then receive a 25 percent discount on the books.

Some of the groups have been together for decades; most are cemented by tight-knit friendships that keep newcomers from joining.

That's where Hopfinger comes in.

She is a volunteer who organizes a monthly drop-in book discussion group at Bloomsbury for people who don't know of a book group to join or who don't want to commit to the traditional etiquette.

For as much as each book club is unique, most follow certain rules: The host selects a book for the group to read, then invites members to her or his home, introduces the book, launches the discussion and serves refreshments. In this setting, members feel obligated to show up and sometimes not insult the host's book choice.

That isn't how it works at Bloomsbury's drop-in book group. No one is expected to attend each meeting or even, for that matter, read the book.

"Some people on the email list just want to know what we're reading, but I've never seen them at a meeting," says Hopfinger, 75, who taught elementary school in California for 30 years before moving to Ashland in 1994. She started this book club at Isser's request in January 2011.

Unlike most traditional book clubs where members have a lot in common — age, gender, outlook on life — her group brings together strangers of all "ages and stages, sexes and interests," she says. She never knows who will show up at the bookstore on the second Tuesday of the month.

In this very democratic group, people who nominate, campaign for and vote for a book to be that month's selection may not be there to discuss it. Some who do attend don't want to wear the nametags that Hopfinger hands out. Why not? She gives a who-knows? shrug.

"But they all seem intelligent and they do have opinions," she says. "People abhor the book or love it." Some announce at the end of the meeting that they want to re-read the book because they missed something brought up in the discussion. "The fascinating book 'Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks' by Rebecca Skloot' was well discussed," the energetic Hopfinger says.

As if dreamed up by a novelist, people appear at the meetings with personal stories woven into their opinions about the book's characters, plot or focus.

Hopfinger says a successful businessman explained some of the nuanced concepts in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers." A women planning a trip to visit her Irish relatives joined the conversation on "Let the Great World Spin," by Colum McCann. And a young woman with an English grandmother told stories to help the group understand the social implications and small-town prejudices in "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson.

In January, a woman who lived with Inuits appeared when the group was talking about "Arctic Dreams" by Barry Lopez. Someone else mentioned that Lopez will be speaking at the Ashland High School Theater on April 20 as part of the Ashland Chautauqua Poets & Writers program. "That will be a great follow-up," Hopfinger wrote her members in an email.

Each month, Hopfinger emails a summary of the book and for busy members, she suggests certain chapters for them to read.

The retired teacher continues to do her homework. She reads each book at least twice and never relies on the discussion group questions included in the paperback editions. She also volunteers as a literature teacher for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Southern Oregon University, reads at two preschools and to youngsters at the Ashland library.

There used to be a flyer taped on Bloomsbury's window promoting the book group. But Hopfinger received too many calls and she wants to limit the number who attend to 25. Now flyers with an image of Virginia Woolf are held at the cash register and given to people who inquire about joining a book club.

Most meetings draw fewer than 10 people, which allows Hopfinger to ask questions that provoke long answers and engage in deep conversations.

Hopfinger will be out of town for the Feb. 14 discussion on "So Long, See You Tomorrow" by William Maxwell. But she'll be back leading the group on March 13. She plans to open the discussion of the book "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein with: Who believes in God and what are your arguments?

She says she steers the group away from talking about politics, but religion is OK if it relates to the book. "You have to be willing to listen to opposing views. In this group, I have to exhibit control," she says, adding that she has no problem stopping someone in mid-sentence with, "Let's hear what someone else has to say."

In the same way, she defends the right for some people to be full-time listeners. "Groups vary," she says. "There are quiet people. There are noisy people. All should feel engaged in the discussion."

Reach Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.