On-campus book clubs facilitate literary discussion outside classroom

The Environmental Book Club, presented by Tufts Institute for the Environment, provides Tufts community members with the opportunity to discuss environmental literature in a non-academic setting. jundercheng via pixabay.com

The average Tufts student is hardly short on material to read. With hundreds of pages of reading assigned to some students each week, it can be difficult for Jumbos to imagine how they would find the time to read a book simply for fun. Yet, despite schedules often packed with academic reading, many Tufts community members participate in the non-academic literary outlets available to them on campus.

Though some on-campus book clubs, like the recently founded Feminist reading group, have fizzled out quickly, not all groups have met a similar fate. Tufts Institute for the Environment’s (TIE) Environmental Book Club, which was started in 2014 and caters to students interested in learning about environmental issues through literature, is proof that non-academic reading groups can, in fact, thrive at Tufts. According to its website, the TIE Book Club meets once every month and reads four books per year.

“The book club fosters ongoing campus-wide conversations about themes of the environment and environmental sustainability,” according to the group’s website.

The club’s website also emphasizes that it is open to all members of the Tufts community. TIE Program Administrator Nolan Nicaise noted that the membership is representative of the Tufts community as a whole, with students coming from the departments of English, Biology, Chemical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, as well as from the Friedman School of Nutrition.

Clare Parker, a doctoral candidate in the Biology department, agreed, noting that undergraduate students, graduate students and faculty alike actively participate in the club. She also believes that there is value in having a membership with varied academic backgrounds.

“I think it’s become a really good way to meet people from outside your department who are interested in the things that you are,” Parker said. “It’s been really interesting for me to talk to a lot of literature and English people, and people who are more policy-minded and historically-minded than I am.”

Some past reading selections for the club have included a New York Times bestseller The World Without Us” (2007) by Alan Weisman, as well as more recent books like “The Sixth Extinction” (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert. According to Parker, the club previously had made book selections based on suggestions from members on a meeting-to-meeting basis.

According to Nicaise, however, the group is trying to cover a more varied range of genres in the upcoming year, including fiction, non-fiction, classics and more current reading selections.

“I wanted to get more diversity in there, so I…selected about half of the books that we’re going to read [this academic year, but] the other half I left open,” Nicaise said. “I have a bank of about 10 different books if people can’t think of any or there aren’t any suggestions … Students get a lot of [non-fiction] in their classes, so I always think it’s good to have some novels put in there, as well.”

In the past, the group has not done much promotion, according to Parker, who first became involved with the club through fellow graduate student Lai Ying Yu, founder of the TIE Book Club. 

According to Nicaise, participants usually join the group through its e-list or word of mouth.

“We haven’t done a lot of advertising, but we have a mailing list of people who are interested,” he said. “A lot of times at activities fairs, I’ll list [the book club] as one of our programs, and people will sign up on our mailing list. Otherwise, people just [hear about us] by word of mouth. It is a small group of people, when we meet we usually have about eight people … I think anywhere between five and 20 is good.”

Although the group is relatively small, Parker said that it looks forward to hosting some larger events this upcoming year.

“I think we’re going to do a couple film screenings, and we’ll definitely put up fliers for those,” she said.

Currently reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek(1974) by Annie Dillard, the group will be having its next meeting on Sept. 30 at 6 p.m. at the TIE Conference Room in the basement of Miller Hall. 

Various other extracurricular reading opportunities can be found throughout the university. One such event will be held by the Center for Race and Democracy (CSRD) on Oct. 1 as part of the 2015 National Dialogue on Race Day (NDRD). Attendees will be discussing #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me” (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. According to the publisher’s website, the book is written in the form of a letter to Coates’ son.

As its first book club eventCSRD Staff Assistant Laura Vargas said the book is ideal to start the conversation on race for NDRD.

“We wanted the book to be the centerpiece of the dialogue,” she said. “It’s very popular right now, and it’s perfect to lead the discussion on race.”

According to Vargas, about 40 copies of the book were distributed to attendees of the CSRD open house earlier this month. Although the exact details of the event are not yet solidified, they expect around 40 to 60 people to attend the event, Vargas said. The discussion will be held at the CSRD offices at 23 Bellevue Street.

The event will include a video of the author as an introduction and a discussion led by history professor Kendra Field, who is also interim director of the CSRD, to encourage participation from the attendees, according to Vargas. 

“I think Dr. Kendra wanted to set it up with some passages that she wants to discuss,” Vargas said. “The idea is that the people who read the book participate, more than her just giving a talk. [We hope] these people participate [and talk about] the book and their experience reading it.”