The first Friday of every month is Alice’s book group meeting day at the library. Alice is one of our kindly children’s librarians, and the book group she runs has been in existence for longer that she’s actually worked at the library. I don’t know who ran it before her, but I do know these ladies (the core group of them, at least) have been meeting somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 years now. TWENTY YEARS! Imagine getting together every, single Friday for 20 years to talk about books. Barring the occasional vacation or illness, this is exactly what these ladies have been doing. I find that more than a little inspiring, considering I haven’t been doing anything for 20 years straight.
Any group that’s met for that long is bound to have weathered some bad experiences along with the good. This group has seen the death of one member, and right now another member is enduring chemo for a particularly insidious form of bone cancer. Yet, they’ve managed to maintain these monthly meetings, sharing the good and the bad, supporting each other through it all.
I joined the group shortly after I started working at the library, so I’ve been attending meetings for just over a year now. That makes me very much a newbie, though now that I’ve completed the secret initiation rite I’m fully vested. I can’t reveal the secrets of the rite, but I can say it involves a live goat, a monolith, and the chanting of an ancient phrase. (Okay, it doesn’t. It requires I actually show up now and then, but that sounded a lot more boring than the goat, the stone, and the phrase.)
Late last year someone at the library decided all the book groups needed to have catchy names, so that the public could differentiate them more easily. Why this suddenly became a problem after 20 years I don’t know, but who am I to question? Alice’s group became “The Spine Crackers,” which is particularly funny when you consider the group’s primarily made up of sweet elderly ladies. “Spine Crackers” has such a violent sound to it, though of course I get the spine reference here. Still, I can’t help getting a mental image of the Spine Crackers all sporting black leather, studded collars and brass knuckles, vigilantly defending their turf and their honor in the pursuit of reading enlightenment. The most violent thing I’ve seen them carrying so far are knitting needles, but I still wouldn’t dare cross a group called the Spine Crackers. I know what’s good for me. And so does the goat.
This Friday is our February meeting day. The book we read this time around was Harriet Doerr’s The Tiger in the Grass. This is a book of short stories, mostly reminiscent of Doerr’s life from the perspective of 80+ years of life experience. As such, it’s a really relevant book for this group, considering the average age is probably around 70. Actually, I think it’s relevant to anyone with the foresight to realize it’s important to listen to the wisdom of someone who’s older than you, who’s been just about everywhere there is to be in life. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s that it’s wise to sometimes just shut up and listen.
Harriet Doerr didn’t start writing until her 70s. She published her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, at the age of 74. The book went on to win the National Book Award for a first work of fiction. Not bad for a woman who’d put her education on hold when she married, returning to her studies and earning her degree after a 55 year hiatus. Not bad for anyone, really, to win such a prestigious award for a first book. It’s just that much more inspiring knowing the circumstances of her life, and the strength of character it took to get back to what she’d started a lifetime ago.
I’m looking forward to this month’s meeting to hear the reaction to Doerr’s book. I imagine they’ll feel a lot of sympathy with the themes. The wisdom of Harriet Doerr won’t be lost on this group, nor will the beautiful writing style of the stories. Plus, there’ll be coffee and baked goods. If all else fails, nothing softens a Spine Cracker like good conversation and refreshments. That’s another life lesson I’ve learned, and it continues to serve me pretty well, too.