I was recently invited to attend a 137-year-old reading club. This is not a hyperbole.
“We would love to have you,” said my neighbor, Mr. Clark, who extended the invitation and who, I found out later, was breaking all kinds of club rules by asking a potential new member to just drop in. That’s right, this club has “rules,” like serious charter-type-rules. Again, not a hyperbole.
Mr. Clark is 91. Last summer he surrendered the keys to his Ford Taurus. This past October he self-published the second book in a trilogy of his memoirs. Mr. Clark is kind of a baller and all-around badass. He saw combat in World War II, stalking through the rubble of French towns that were bombed within an inch of extinction. He was active during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Once he literally walked next to Martin Luther King, Jr. at a peace march in Boston. “It was August,” said Mr. Clark. “Dr. King was in a beautiful, full suit. He preened when he walked. He loved shaking hands and looking people in the eye.” Mr. Clark pauses. “He was kind of a dandy.” Again: baller. Again: badass.
When we moved into the neighborhood, Mr. Clark appeared on our doorstep one day like Moses showing up in his basket among the reeds. I opened the door to find this slight, whip of a man dressed in slacks and a grey windbreaker zipped to the neck despite the warm May Saturday. His hands were folded neatly over one another in patient repose, in one he held a small, white index card. He introduced himself and welcomed us to the neighborhood that he had called home for the last 30 years. He was “recently” widowed (12 years, but death makes an ass of relativity), a retired English professor, and active in the local historical society. He proceeded to present the index card, covered in scrawling blue script, with the names and numbers of useful, local resources—the garage that handled his repairs, the guy who serviced his lawn, an electrician who had always treated him fairly. A walking Yelp page. We loved him instantly.
“I’d like to invite you to the West Medford Reading Club,” said Mr. Clark, speaking slowly and carefully on a detailed voicemail message. The group meets monthly, pausing during the summer months, he explained. There would be a bit of business followed by discussion, and concluding with refreshments and light socializing. I smiled to myself hearing the formality of the message and thought about my grandparents and the same conventionalized way they carried themselves and spoke as if they lived inside a Noel Coward play. “The West Medford Reading Club has been meeting continuously for the last 137 years. Hope to see you there.” Clearly this was not your sit-around-drink-wine-and-not-talk-about-the-book book club.
I am a history junky; I live in a great part of the country to get my history fix: Boston and its outlying areas cradle Revolutionary War history not to mention traces of the original 13 English colonies responsible for kicking off Planet America as we know it. Joining a centuries old book club, sorry, reading club? That is my jam.
Thirteen of us gathered in Mr. Clark’s living room and I imagined that this must have been a lot like the first meeting of the club held in December, 1879—a group of interested and committed people coming together to talk seriously and passionately about literature, which in the nineteenth century was still the ruling media of the day and one of the only ways to spend a Saturday night.
This particular meeting was devoted to poetry. Each person came with one or two short poems to read and discuss. Everyone listened attentively, appreciatively as people read out verses that held sentimental or emotional weight. Mr. Clark recited from memory several verses of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Reverence sunk itself into the corners of the room. It was reverence for more than just the poems or the poets who wrote them. It was reverence for the gift of being able to come together in this completely anachronistic way to hear and see and receive one another as people marked in our differences, but fused in our shared love for the bald power of words, for the desire to have real conversation in a world crowded with sound-bites.
Is it a small miracle that people have sustained this club for 137 years or is it a testament to what humans will always want: connection in real and meaningful ways over things that matter?
Maybe both. If I’m lucky enough to receive a formal invitation to join, I’ll find out.