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Books

How Long Beach became a book club superhub, with 130 and counting

An illustration for the Long Beach Book Club Project
The Long Beach Book Club Project discovered groups of readers who connected over stories, then became lifelong friends.
(Chris Morris / For The Times)

In 1952, six Cal State Long Beach faculty wives formed a book club. Sixty-seven years later, the Egg Heads are still going strong.

“I was just lonesome for company,” said Louise Wilde, 97, who founded the Egg Heads. “It’s the one group that I’ve belonged to for years. You read books that you would never choose yourself.”

The group has met continuously for 67 years. After some members died, their daughters took their places.

The Egg Heads is one of 130 book clubs and counting that have been discovered this year by the Long Beach Book Club Project. Organizers Susan Redfield, Linda Haley and Dee Abrahamse began their search as a way to reach out to book lovers and raise donations for the city’s new Main Library opening Sept. 21. But in just a few months the project has become something more.

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“As we tried to find book clubs, we got so interested in them that it’s morphed into a project of creating a record and a community of all the groups,” said Abrahamse, former dean of liberal arts at California State University Long Beach. “We’re just finding them to be so interesting, so diverse and to mean so much in people’s lives.”

Redfield, a former Long Beach Public Library Foundation president who ran the Long Beach Reads One Book program, isn’t surprised by the scope of the book club list, but she is delighted. “Long Beach is a really literate city,” she said.

While Wilde and the Egg Heads are clearly book club veterans, they also happen to be on trend. Author Roxane Gay began hosting a book club on Vice News on HBO this summer. Actress Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club has pushed her picks onto bestseller lists. The Los Angeles Times Book Club, reading books by Susan Orlean, Laila Lalami and George Takei, held its inaugural events this summer.

To track Long Beach’s book clubs, the project organizers distribute a questionnaire, which has returned some interesting data. The most popular book in Long Beach, selected by more than 20 book clubs as a favorite? Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow.”

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But there have been subtler revelations as well. “One of the overarching themes” in the questionnaire responses, said Haley, “is that people have created their own communities within our larger city.” The organizers have discovered that while book club demographics skew toward older women (and some men) and many book clubs read the same books, there are notable exceptions.

Vivian Malauulu, health benefits officer of the International Longshoreman and Warehousemans’ Union Local 13, runs Not Your Average Book Club for union members, retirees and their families.

“Our membership is hungry for interaction and stimulation that is more than physical labor,” Malauulu said. “When people think of dockworkers, they think of blue-collar labor, but we do have a significant portion of our membership that is college-educated. Some have advanced degrees, some have their own businesses.”

The book group is fluid; there is no obligation to attend or even to have read the book in advance. Malauulu chooses books based on a theme — like “Winning Balance” by Olympic medalist Shawn Johnson for Women’s History Month — to give union workers the opportunity to talk about issues that matter to them.

Cambodian refugee Bryant Ben sees his group, the Cambodian Language Club, as a way to keep Cambodian culture and the Khmer language alive. Long Beach, which has the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia, is also home to the largest collection of materials in Khmer in a U.S. public library, most of which is housed in the Mark Twain Library.

Ben says that reading Cambodian books helps “polish language skills,” especially for first-generation Cambodian Americans. In 2017, he and Long Beach Public Library Director Glenda Williams accepted the National Medal for Museum and Library Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C.

Specialty clubs abound. The Nomads Book Club, which includes Redfield, Haley and Abrahamse as members, emphasizes books from or about other parts of the world. There is a Jane Austen Book Club, a combination knitting and reading group, and a 15-year-old book club focused on art history for docents of the Long Beach Museum of Art. The Mark Twain Library offers book clubs geared toward teens. Neighbors with young children, however, founded the majority of book clubs on the list, many of which have persisted long after their kids flew the coop. From the questionnaires returned, the majority of book clubs have been meeting for between 10 and 20 years.

“Through these book clubs,” Haley said, “they become lifelong friends.”

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News of the Long Beach Book Club Project has largely spread by word-of-mouth, and while the organizers hope to raise awareness and funds for city libraries, the list has become a kind of living document, a portrait of a place and its readers. Redfield noted that while book clubs are nothing new, as “bookstores are disappearing like a magician’s handkerchiefs,” they’re essential. Their popularity may also be a backlash against the isolation inherent to social media or, she says, an attempt to connect in a culture hungry for productive discourse.

Because when a book club is done right, members are free to disagree about a book — politely. Just ask one of the oldest book club members in Long Beach. “We’ve always been a very congenial group,” Wilde said of the Egg Heads’ longevity. The other secret to a successful book club is a stellar snack spread. Wilde serves Ozark Pie, her mother’s recipe.

Book club picks

According to the Long Beach Book Club Project, these books have been named as favorites by multiple clubs.

Fiction

“A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee

“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel

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“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

“Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett

“The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Nonfiction

“Educated” by Tara Westover

“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

“The Lemon Tree” by Sandy Tolan

“The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown

“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

“Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson


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