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San Diego book clubs – what's the point?

Are they just for girls?

“And it’s The Bell Jar!”
  • “And it’s The Bell Jar!”
  • Photograph by Sydney Prather

In the Seinfeld episode “The Couch,” George joined a book club through his girlfriend.

“So, she got you to join a book club?” Jerry asked.

“I got a feeling I’m gonna be much smarter than you soon,” George replied.

The Feminist Comic Book Club meets every Sunday to share and discuss their favorite titles, have workshops on writing and illustration, or collaborate on projects.

The Feminist Comic Book Club meets every Sunday to share and discuss their favorite titles, have workshops on writing and illustration, or collaborate on projects.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

“Well, I think that statement alone reflects your burgeoning intelligence,” Jerry said. The book was Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a mere 90 pages. By the end of the episode, George still hadn’t gotten around to finishing the book and ended up watching the movie at a stranger’s house.

I was ten when I saw this episode; I watched it while drawing my favorite X-Men lineup on our rickety coffee table as my mom read her church newsletter over monkfruit tea. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I met people who were actually in book clubs. I always thought it was a Seinfeld thing.

I asked a friend once if she was in one. “Pffft!” she rolled her eyes dismissively, “Why would I want to spend an evening with housewives discussing Eat, Pray, Love?” She immediately felt terrible. “Oh my God! That was so mean! But... right?!”

Alanna Rickards Vaught and her husband, Ryan, host a couples book club at their home in South Park.

Alanna Rickards Vaught and her husband, Ryan, host a couples book club at their home in South Park.

Photograph by Sydney Prather

Right. I had a similar thought, too. I knew my impression was based on a stereotype. But I wondered how much truth the stereotype contained, and I was skeptical about the level of actual reading that gets done in a book club.

Perhaps it’s the idea of the book club book that we find unbearable. It brings to mind that women’s marketing motto, “Pink it and shrink it.” Pink it: have the books be about empowerment through self-care, or give it a depressing story arc with a redemptive lift at the end through the realization of some bland universalism. Shrink it: justify its hedonism and low-effort storytelling with woo-woo mysticism or a journey of self-discovery.

Was it that simple, then? That I merely disliked book clubs because they’re not macho? Or was it more that I was generally pessimistic about people’s commitment to reading? A music teacher once told me that the things we dislike say more about us than the things we like. There’s probably some truth in that.

“I lost a lot of sleep over this book” says Gwen Gleason-Rohrer

“I lost a lot of sleep over this book” says Gwen Gleason-Rohrer

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

Book clubs have been around for centuries. According to Pamela Burger in her article, “Women’s Groups and the Rise of the Book Club,” Puritan Bible-study groups and Parisian salons were the precursors to the modern book club.

“Perhaps the most significant among these predecessors are the women’s clubs of the late-19th century,” composed of women from the middle- and upper-middle classes. In 1868, journalist Jane Cunningham Croly formed an all-women’s culture club called Sorosis after female columnists were barred from a press event featuring Charles Dickens. For these clubwomen, literature was an important ingredient in a popular concept called “self-culture,” where reading and study were integral to shaping moral character. The groups were a space to discuss art, politics, and philosophy, free from self-censorship or mansplainers.

Robin Dodds Lang (center) and Kaitlin Barr Nadal (right) discuss The Great Believers at the One Book, One San Diego launch event on September 19. Robin had her book signed by the author, Rebecca Makkai.

Robin Dodds Lang (center) and Kaitlin Barr Nadal (right) discuss The Great Believers at the One Book, One San Diego launch event on September 19. Robin had her book signed by the author, Rebecca Makkai.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

While many cultures have self-improvement regimens, in America, it is a secular religion of sorts, amplified through marketing and tapping into the essence of what Alexis de Tocqueville called “that strange melancholy which oftentimes will haunt the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance.”

Before Jay Gatsby believed in the green light, young James Gatz believed in self-culture. His boyhood schedule as he lived with his “shiftless and unsuccessful” parents involved studying poise and elocution, studying needed inventions, the reading of “improving” books and magazines. Belief in self-culture was the belief in democracy and the American Dream.

I needed to see, though, some actual book clubs in action. They had eluded me for almost twenty years. I needed to see if I actually disliked book clubs, or merely thought I did because my brittle masculinity or contrarian streak wouldn’t let me like them.

Jessica Reilly and Michael Gainey at a meeting of The Feminist Comic Book Club. The club began as a stomping ground for comic book fans who wanted more than the tired old “smash and grab” style of storytelling.

Jessica Reilly and Michael Gainey at a meeting of The Feminist Comic Book Club. The club began as a stomping ground for comic book fans who wanted more than the tired old “smash and grab” style of storytelling.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

“Tolstoy’s a dork.”

It’s a cool summer afternoon in a small South Park living room. Hamilton’s is a few blocks away. Drinks options include Sierra Nevada or Plenty for All Pilsner. Everyone has tattoos. For the first time, I am alarmed at my own uninked skin. Thigh tattoos are a thing? Since when?

The house is Alanna Rickards Vaught’s, and this is the first meeting of their couples book club. A whiteboard on one wall displays music notations and physics equations, the work of her husband Ryan, a physics grad student at UC San Diego. On a bookshelf is a photo of the couple in their wedding clothes holding powder-blue books and smiling at the camera. She has the same photo at her workstation at Coronado High School where she works. This is my first-ever book club meeting.

Patrick Reilly wrote Five Realms, an adventure series that starred anthropomorphic animals. HIs wife, Jessica, does the illustrations.

Patrick Reilly wrote Five Realms, an adventure series that starred anthropomorphic animals. HIs wife, Jessica, does the illustrations.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

A scar-faced dog named Jelly circles around the room, taking pats from everyone. The four couples are all friends; the men go as far back as middle school. They talked about books all the time in their spare time, so they decided to start a book club to make it official.

Zachary Wood, a special education teacher, is in the middle of talking about how Stephen King’s books were set in the same universe. He thinks Tolstoy is a dork for being such a moral scold in his ending of Anna Karenina. We make fun of guys whose Bible is Infinite Jest.

Tabitha Ayub, a speech pathologist, talks about how her reading changed when she became a parent. She read Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield differently. Before, she felt bad for him as a lost kid. Now, she felt bad for him as someone’s lost kid.

An hour into the meeting, another couple, Juliet Czoka and Evan Anderson, show up, and it’s time to select the book for the month. Another couple who can’t be here send in their titles via text. The selections resemble a survey course for a literary classics canon. This is the club’s first meeting, so they all pick well-known authors: Sylvia Plath, Ralph Ellison, James Joyce.

“Let’s get Ryan’s dad hat,” Rickards Vaught says. She brings out a straw hat and writes the titles onto little pieces of paper. A shuffling, and she draws out a piece of paper.

Model of a tent from issue 2 of Patrick and Jessica Reilly’s Five Realms comic series (cat for scale). Jessica creates the models to get a more accurate representation for how some of the characters interact with the world.

Model of a tent from issue 2 of Patrick and Jessica Reilly’s Five Realms comic series (cat for scale). Jessica creates the models to get a more accurate representation for how some of the characters interact with the world.

“And it’s The Bell Jar!” she announces. That was Ayub’s selection. It had shown up on a reading list for her long ago, and she wanted to revisit the novel, give it a real reading this time.

A month later, the group reconvenes to discuss Sylvia Plath’s coming-of-age story about a young woman who struggles with depression in the 1950s. The South Park Walkabout is in full swing outside. A furtive cover of “La Bamba” plays over the speakers of a nearby bar.

The meeting is meant to include four couples, but, well, there were reasons. One couple couldn’t make it, but assured they were enjoying the novel. Two members had to work. It’s down to the Rickards Vaughts and Ryan’s two childhood friends Anderson and Wood.

Everyone present says they liked the novel. “Why was she so racist, though?” Wood asks about the protagonist, Esther. “It just threw me for a loop, the mean stuff. It was funny, kind of. Like, ‘You make me sick, Joan!’”

“I thought Joan was just a figment of her imagination,” Anderson says, rubbing his Django Reinhardt tattoo.

The conversation moves to various scenes, from Esther’s diaphragm fitting to the electroshock treatment to how we feel about Buddy Willard, the would-be boyfriend who ruins everyone’s Thanksgiving forever (in one of the most awkward scenes in literature, Buddy exposes himself to Esther, who can only think of a turkey neck and gizzards).

“Did the novel make you guys think about women’s experiences differently?” Alanna asks.

“Women be craaa­aazy,” Anderson cheekily replies.

“Women be shoppin’!” Wood chimes in. We talk about being familiar with depression, but nothing to Esther Greenwood’s degree. Alanna talks about identifying with Esther’s not wanting children of her own.

Alanna draws a series of graphs on the whiteboard. The traditional story arc is like an upside-down checkmark: the upward slope leading to a climax and descending into a resolution. Another type of story arc looks like a sine graph of undulating waves. There’s a literary theory out there, apparently, that argues the traditional arc resembles the male orgasm in that it tops out at the climax and peters out afterward. The sine graph, according to this theory, more closely resembles the female orgasm, moving in subtler waves throughout the story. We can’t settle on what type of structure The Bell Jar follows.

Near the end of the discussion, Czoka comes through the door from work, a sweaty, opened bottle of ale in hand. She had read a few pages of the novel on a beach. “So you didn’t read the book,” someone teases, “but you had time to watch Girl, Interrupted?”

The group decides they will continue the tradition. Despite the poor attendance, everyone has had fun discussing the book and occasionally falling into tangents. Another shuffling of papers, and next month’s title is revealed: Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, a novel about a traveling circus family.

From “civilization” to “parasitic growths”

There is a surprising amount of data about book consumption. And where there’s data, there’s marketing. And where there’s marketing, there’s bound to be some strong feelings either way about intention and purity.

According to one survey, 88 percent of private book clubs are all-women groups. One estimate puts book club memberships at 5 million; the site goodreads.com, a book-oriented social network, has 40 million members. For comparison, the NRA reported its membership in 2018 at a record-high 5.5 million. According to Pew Research, 25 percent of men say they haven’t read a book in any form in the past year; 22 percent of women say the same.

In 1812, an editorial in The Belfast Monthly breathlessly declared, “There is no prospect of society so pleasing to the lovers of mankind, as that of civilization…. Perhaps few things in our day, have contributed so much to this very desirable object [of civilization] as the establishing of reading societies, commonly called Book-Clubs. So conspicuous is this, that the people of those districts where they have been held for a length of time, are far superior in general information.”

On the flip side, commercial applications of the book club have had equally strong but hostile receptions. In a 1929 article called “The Case Against Book Clubs” by publisher Frederick Stokes, the author denounced the subscription services that were popular at the time with an almost unreasonable fervor. He cited the Book of the Month club as an example. Established in 1921 by a mail-order businessman and an advertising executive, the Club used a council of five critics and authors to pick a book that would be sent to its subscribers.

It sounded innocuous enough. And yet one critic, Edward Stevens, claimed that “its disastrous effect on the honest business of bookselling, also its emasculation of the human mind, whereby everyone loses the power of his determination in reading, are appalling.”

Robert Rogers, a professor of literature at MIT, called book club selections “not even an approximation to what the average intelligent reader wants.”

Finally, Edmund Whittier, the secretary-treasurer of the American Fair Trade Association, called book clubs “parasitic growths.”

Both Stevens’ use of “emasculation” and Rogers’ dismissal of intellectual heft struck me as not that far off from my own fixation on the “pink it, shrink it” aspect of the book club. I needed to experience something that could challenge this point of view.

“I lost a lot of sleep over this book.”

Books and Tea is a group of friends that meets monthly. It’s a Tuesday evening in the South Bay. Members of the monthly Books and Tea club munch on snacks and chat about their days. The spread, laid out on a mid-century dining table, contains tea (both iced and hot) and Paris-themed snacks such as croissants, ham-and-Gruyere tarts, macarons, and the odd bowl of popcorn. The place belongs to Robin Dodds Lang, a friend and former co-worker who’s turned me onto some of the best material I’ve read.

Her friend Stacey Wright based the premise of the club on a subscription service. “I saw an ad on Facebook for a monthly subscription box that sends you a book and a tea to go with it,” she says. “The price was prohibitive for me, but I loved the idea.”

Gwen Gleason-Rohrer, a physician, shares a story about her son. Someone discusses hot water and its ability to absorb into the gut. Another member talks up Just Mercy, a book about inequalities in the justice system.

Everyone eventually migrates to the living room, where the furniture is laid out in a circle. More dining chairs have to be brought up from the basement. Against one wall stands a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf filled with books and artwork. A plate from a bodysurfing photography collection called “Plight of the Torpedo People” and a vintage ukelele space out the hardbacks and paperbacks.

The book on tap tonight is Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers, one of 2019’s One Book, One San Diego selections. The novel is about the AIDS epidemic and its reverberating effects on an art gallery director named Yale and his friend Nico’s sister Fiona. Yale’s storyline takes place in the mid-80s, Fiona’s in 2015 Paris as she looks for her daughter Claire.

“I lost a lot of sleep over this book,” Gleason-Rohrer says. She’s been hustling to finish the book in recent days and dreaming about the story after reading.

The talk moves on to the dual plot lines. One member says she didn’t care too much for Fiona’s plotline at first. Another person: “I think I heard on an interview [the author] used Google Calendar” to sort out the plots.

Another member who has not finished the book (and is reading on her phone mid-meeting) compares the storytelling to Tolkien’s.

“What page are you on?” someone asks.

“Page 92,” she answers. Everyone chuckles. “This is a good place to read, though.”

“Are you saying we’re not interesting?” someone jokes.

One of the scenes in the novel hit particularly close to home for Lang, a librarian in higher education. Without spoiling the story, it contains life and death in one moment, and in one building. Lang describes the day her triplets were born. After delivering the boys, she was in that post-delivery state of relief that it’s over. Then she received a phone call from someone telling her that her close friend Bill had died. She had been helping him to sort out his affairs after he was incapacitated. At that same moment, family had begun streaming into the room to give their congratulations on a safe delivery, but she was in tears. The highs and lows were disorienting, and the scene in the novel took her back to it. But it also gave her a different way to process her grief. It was, in a way, therapy through literature.

The conversation wends its way from unlikeable characters (“Claire was just a difficult person.” “Yeah, and she joins a cult!”) to the progress in HIV and AIDS treatments (“Nowadays an HIV diagnosis is like diabetes”) to meditations on the spirit of the times (“We don’t choose our time in history”). According to Publishers Weekly, most book clubs stay on topic for at least 40 minutes. In this meeting Books and Tea at least doubles that.

I followed up with some of the women regarding their views of book clubs and reading in general. For example, why so few men’s book clubs?

Rebecca Go Paynter, who bonded with me over Asian cultures’ affinity for hot water, responded, “I hate to play into stereotypes, but my impression has been that men prefer to hang out in situations where less talking is required. It’s not that my husband doesn’t want to or can’t talk or share his feelings — he’s chattier than I am — but the purpose of hanging out is literally whatever thing that he and his male friends are doing. Conversation is a happy byproduct. I, on the other hand, meet with my friends to catch up and converse. The activity is the happy byproduct.”

“Culturally it seems that men aren’t as likely as women to seek out community, which is problematic for our society,” Lang said.

I once spoke to a college professor who said that for today’s students, the commitment to reading is not the same as it used to be. I wonder if they had the same thoughts.

“I’m generally a non-alarmist when it comes to societal literacy,” Kaitlin Barr Nadal, a copywriter, said. “I think the fact that we read more than ever is encouraging in and of itself. We’re an increasingly text-driven society, and even something as dumb as Twitter memes requires a kind of linguistic complexity that merits acknowledgment.”

Nadal has no rosy view of the old days where everyone curled up and just read novels and longform journalism. “Perhaps there was a golden age of Americans reading serious literature post-WWII into the pre-computer era,” she said, “but I’d be more inclined to argue it was a period of reading the morning newspaper and maybe pretending to have read the latest novel that everyone was talking about.”

Gleason-Rohrer disagreed. “As a healthcare provider of both adults and children, and a mother of my own children, I am deeply concerned about the ways that technology, the ubiquitous presence of screens, and the constant search for entertainment is impacting our brains and the way we process information, not to mention how it impacts mental health and social interactions.”

Oprahfication of literacy

Books and Tea’s members clearly care about the text and making sense of its themes. No swirling glasses of Chardonnay, no excessive amounts of off-track chatter, no pink-it-shrink-it book. So who, I wonder, is responsible for some of these stereotypes of the “girly” book club?

The year 1996 was a turning point for book club culture in America. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, many women’s book clubs were political in nature, combining the personal and the political with “consciousness raising” texts and topics. For some critics, the late '90s marked the beginning of the “Oprahfication of literacy.”

In a 1997 Time magazine article, Richard Lacayo declared that “Oprah Winfrey, the greatest force in television, has practically saved the alphabet. It’s simple. Oprah selects a title for the book-discussion club. Then everyone in America buys it. This gives her the market clout of a Pentagon procurement officer.”

There was a marked commercial boost to books selected for the club. Deep End of the Ocean, its first selection, went from 100,000 to 915,000 copies in print.

For readers in the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, books “are not simply transformative; they can be redemptive,” R. Mark Hall wrote in an article in the journal College English. “Here, the uses of serious fiction are not primarily academic, but aimed, instead, at self-help and healing.” In Burger’s examination of the phenomenon, she described a typical OWBC meeting: “A few friends discuss the monthly selection over dinner, share personal stories, and give empathic interpretations of the text.”

If a person were feeling ungenerous, they might call these meetings “schmaltzy” and “one-dimensional,” which were exactly the words author Jonathan Franzen used to describe the book club’s titles in 2001. For a writer who can write clear-eyed prose at times, Franzen’s blatant lack of self-awareness had become something of a meme. He made these comments after his novel The Corrections was selected as an OWBC selection, and Winfrey rescinded her invitation onto her show after his comments became public. Their feud would continue for another ten years.

It’s difficult but I suppose unsurprising to see such elitist attitudes towards reading. My own understanding has been that reading is for everyone. Even if people read down-market stuff, who cares? In light of all these heavy arguments on literacy and literature, I thought back to watching Seinfeld and drawing my X-Men fan art. I wondered if there were any comic book clubs out there. What would they even do?

“Comics are for everyone”

As a kid, I grew up on all kinds of comic books. I may love Hilary Mantel and Shakespeare and Lydia Davis with my brain, but comic books have my heart. I read Mad and Cracked magazines religiously. I made regular pilgrimages to Pendragon, my local comic book store, to buy trade paperbacks of Sandman and Strangers in Paradise.

I’d seethe with envy as my classmate Ricky got the latest hard-to-find copies of Ranma ½. I got in big trouble with my mom when she caught me with a copy of the manga Sanctuary in my backpack. It was violent, explicit. Ricky said I’d love it. I don’t think Ricky and I spoke again after that episode.

It’s Sunday at Lestat’s in Hillcrest, and a three-foot tall plaster sphinx looms over a table where a group is working. One person is working off an iPad, refining and resizing his panels with a stylus. Another is drawing with a light blue pencil on comic stock paper as he references the storyboard next to it. Another is working on a laptop. Stacked on the table are Katie Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, and a retro-futurist title called Ro-Busters by Pat Mills, among other comic books.

Michael Gainey helms the group Feminist Comic Book Club, which I had found on the Meetup app. They meet every Sunday to share and discuss their favorite titles, have workshops on writing and illustration, or collaborate on projects.

“Feminist” is not really how people typically imagine a comic book fan. The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy (whose real name is Jeff Albertson) comes to mind. A sarcastic, petty gatekeeper, Albertson represents the kind of fans whose overprotectiveness of their medium is annoying at best and toxic at worst.

Gainey graduated from Ithaca College and currently teaches an ethics-based writing course at Earl Warren College in UC San Diego. He kept the “Feminist” title in the club to filter for the Jeff Albertsons of comic fandom, the kinds of fans who contribute to what one member called “refuge culture.” These types of fans want a more nostalgic form of comic books that others would read as stagnant and derivative.

Like many modern comic book fans, Gainey is looking for people who want more original storytelling, narratives that reflect our world’s growing diversity of experiences. A comic book fan who is able to suspend credulity and so enjoy stories about mutants that can shoot energy waves from their eyes but who can’t stand the idea of a female Thor or a Muslim Miss Marvel because he feels victimized by so-called “social justice warriors” would probably find a safer space elsewhere.

Both Gainey and the club have a compelling backstory. After graduating with a degree in TV and radio, Gainey moved to LA in the hopes of getting a job in television around 2007. He catered weddings, built sets from IKEA furniture for a reality show. He was once an assistant to Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens.

Gainey eventually got gigs on Futurama, Family Guy, and American Dad’s productions teams. He gradually moved up to working for Seth McFarlane, the latter two shows’ creator. As McFarlane’s assistant, Gainey was on-call 24 hours, and described the work as “cutthroat.”

Afterward, he had some freelance writing credits, creating scripts for YouTube shorts and gameshows for Disney Digital Network. Anyone who’s worked in LA’s meat grinder of an entertainment industry knows there persists a perverse desperation that can quickly lead to burnout. Gainey eventually moved to San Diego after his wife found a tenure-track professorship position here.

Feminist Comic Book Club began as a stomping ground for comic book fans who wanted more than the tired old “smash and grab” style of storytelling. They had guest speakers; there were themed events like “Anime Night.” There were creative workshops, in which Gainey, speaking as a writer, would help some of the members demystify the storytelling process.

Under the old leadership, the club, Gainey says, became decidedly more political after the 2016 Presidential election. The original founder wanted a more activist group, even when it came to things not related to comics. The group disbanded for a while and Gainey picked up the mantle on the Meetup app to keep it alive.

When I first meet Gainey, he shows me a storyboard and a draft of a comic he is working on. The piece is a short story about a girl who gets asked out on a date. She says “yes” to the guy, and on her way home, she’s barraged by wedding consultants, random people giving her romantic advice. There’s a panel where she uppercuts a priest. Gainey has drawn each panel in light blue ink and patiently walks me through his storyboards. The rounded edges and exaggerated action setpieces reminded me of a Scott Pilgrim homage.

“Comics are for everyone,” Gainey says, and the point of the club is to enjoy comics and to elevate the conversation a bit — to allow room for more original titles than just Marvel or DC (although fans of both are welcome). “Comics are also time capsules; they represent the times.” As a critical reader, Gainey says, “you’re always evaluating the culture.”

In one meeting, the group gets to talking about titles that were admired by many, but had problematic authors or themes. Gainey likes Flash Gordon’s style and storytelling, and says its outdated social messages wouldn’t deter him from reading it now. “We have to understand the text as a product of its time,” he says.

The discussion comes around to an author, Dave Sim, who wrote the critically acclaimed Cerebus series about an aardvark that ran from 1977 to 2004. In an introduction to his interview in The AV Club, Tasha Robinson wrote, “Sim has delved into broad satire, novelistic storytelling, and radical stylistic experimentation.” Many of Sim’s fans, though, were turned off after he wrote a manifesto titled Tangent. In the opening, Sim wrote in response to a question about the origins of his ideas about women, “All I got out of that research I already knew: a) women want to be raped by rich, muscular, handsome doctors b) women are completely self-absorbed and, thus, see themselves in everything around them and c) feminism is no different from communism in that all of its literature is founded upon convoluted syntax, bafflegab and academic jargon.”

Gainey and another member say that Sim’s comments lost them as fans. Another member says she sees Sim as a troubled genius, but wouldn’t feel comfortable telling that to another woman. When we were kids, all the comics conversations revolved around,“Who would win in a fight?” But the in-depth conversation, not to mention the consistent support the members showed each other at Feminist Comic Book Club, made me realize that comic books have the merit and heft to activate complex discussions about authorship and culture.

Dungeon master

During a Feminist Comic Book Club meeting at Hue Cafe on Convoy, I meet a husband-and-wife writing-and-illustration team named Jessica and Patrick Reilly. They’ve come to chat with Gainey about their work. The Reillys recently returned from a convention where they promoted their comic series, Five Realms, which they self-published through their platform Zonks Illustration.

The couple met in Pensacola, FL. Both were in the Navy. Patrick was training to be an aviation structural mechanic and Jessica an air traffic controller. They met at a “terrible country concert” to which they had been dragged by friends. They took a liking to each other immediately.

Five Realms is an adventure series that stars anthropomorphic animals. Patrick did the writing and Jessica the illustrations. He had come up with the concept on a hike and she encouraged him to bring the project to fruition.

“I got into Dungeons and Dragons in my youth,” Patrick says. “I always took pleasure in being the Dungeon/Game Master for sessions. I had full creative control over what the players got to experience. I think that’s where it truly started.”

The project’s illustration style took its influences from Japanese art and architecture. “Patrick and I spent a lot of time researching Japanese architectural history as well as drawing from modern animated examples for inspiration,” Jessica says. “From there, I got to work creating literal models of the characters and buildings. With the scaled models, I could get a more accurate representation for how some of these characters interacted with the world.”

They talked about the finer points of setting up a table at conventions, which is more painstaking than most realize. Presenters need to consider the heights of tables and chairs offered at the venue; whether to have plastic or wood displays. They need to choreograph their products for the audience. “If it’s not cohesive, people kind of look away,” Jessica says.

Zonks Illustration had modest goals for each issue of Five Realms, turning to Kickstarter to get initial funding. For their second issue, the goal was $300, but they made over $3000 from fans. Both said that their military experience helped them stay disciplined and goal-focused. For the Reillys, Five Realms is proof that if anyone wants to, they can and should pursue that project that’s been floating around in their heads. “If they have a passion for doing it, they just need to do it,” Jessica says. “Let it be a project and let it be continuous.”

Happy byproducts

Before the summer started, Alanna Rickards Vaught lent me a novel called The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. I finally cracked it open months later. I was struck by a quote the author included before the first chapter: “The question any novel is really trying to answer is: Is life worth living?”

I wonder if that’s the question we’re all asking as we pick up a new book: Is it all worth it, the bumps and burps, the ups and sideways of living? I cannot imagine any answer to the question besides, “Yes, how could it not be? Look at how much there is out there to read!”

For a long time, I was a book club skeptic. I hate being told what to read, and even books given by friends are given a side-eye long before read them. And I hate depending on others’ having read the book for a quality conversation.

But I realize now that’s all beside the point. Whether it’s women sipping on iced tea and nibbling macarons, inked-out young people talking books over obscure brews, or a tech industry employee collaborating with a former Hollywood writer on a comic about a general who wants to storm a castle when all his soldiers want to do is to eat lunch, it all comes down to the happy byproduct of being in a community.

The title for Books and Tea’s monthly selection came from an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald about his “lost generation” in Esquire magazine. “We were the great believers,” he wrote. “Edmund Wilson has remarked that the force of the disillusion in A Farewell to Arms derives from Hemingway’s original hope and belief.” He continues later on: “So we inherited two worlds — the one of hope to which we had been bred; the one of disillusion which we had discovered early for ourselves.”

With today’s fractured cultural landscape, an essay that seeks to encapsulate a generation in the span of a few thousand words is almost unimaginable. What the three book clubs I’ve seen share in common is that they contain great believers in the idea of community, of building on that initial human instinct to collaborate and experiment.

The book club, in whatever its manifestation, is one of the places that says, “Come on in. There’s always room for more.”

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