The Overstory of the Charlotte Men’s Reading group


Can you imagine… Being Mortal, Lost in Shangri La, hearing the News of the World about the Destiny of the Republic that includes The Underground Railroad, Guns, Germs, and Steel, and The Wright Brothers; that the Soul of the Octopus, Elephant Company, and Cod are the Gift of the Rain; that the Killers of the Flower Moon, a Station 11 pandemic will not Collapse because of the heroic efforts of The Contract Surgeon and A Gentleman in Moscow, and that it is possible for gentlemen to have Oil and Marble to attend to The Overstory of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

If so, then maybe you can imagine a men’s reading group being swept away by politics, art, inventions, medicine, environmental and social justice, adventures, biodiversity, and mortality. Let me share a bit of how we came about and what feeds our mortal souls to read and spend an hour and half together each month.

For many of us who are fully immersed in family life, work and odds and ends of household and financial maintenance the joy of reading often takes a back seat. I confess this was true for me. For many years as a professor at Saint Michael’s College my reading time was focused on academic articles, books and essays on art education and pedagogy. Of course, there were the student papers as well.

After retiring, I had no more excuses. My wife is a member of a book group, and I witness how this experience both enriches her curiosity and offers pleasure in connecting with others. Her book group is 25 years young. As a Charlotte Library trustee, I was aware of the vibrant Friends Book Group and Mystery Book Group organized by the library. Yet, these book groups are comprised of all women. One might ask: is that a problem? No, not really, yet I couldn’t help wonder, where are the men? Men do like to read and occasionally like to talk.

I shared my wonder with Margaret Woodruff, our Library Director, whether she thought offering a men’s reading group would be appealing and would actually fly. She and the library staff were more than encouraging. Within a week I chose The Contract Surgeon by Dan O’Brien, about an army surgeon who treats Crazy Horse and life in the late 1800s. The library posted a meeting date on the website and FPF to see whether we had any takers. We struck a chord as 10 brave and eager souls came forth. This was three years ago and we have been meeting monthly since. A few have stepped aside and a few have stepped forward.

What was the appeal of a book group designed for gents? There must be more than just hanging out with guys. There was also a common commitment to keep our minds actively engaged and open to other perspectives with other thoughtful gents. We came with a common curiosity to expand our horizons and a willingness to be challenged by a good book to read every month, often ones that we would not necessarily choose ourselves to read.

One of my goals for our group was to be sure that everyone would have a chance to reflect on the book… and we all do. Our conversations on each book are enriched by our varied life and professional experiences. A room or zoom room full of engineers, health care providers, educators, public health personnel, environmentalists, ophthalmologists, etc. offer a vibrant array of perspectives. The openness to challenge “old” ideas, stretch our imaginations, and encounter perpetual political, social and environmental issues has been refreshing for each of us, particularly during a time of social isolation. For some of us the recent book we read is our new favorite book; not a dud in the lot, as one of the readers shared with me. We feel a healthy sense of responsibility with our choice of book, yet, this comes easier knowing that we have developed our trust in the choices of others. The responses to my query about the most memorable book we’ve read suggested that each of us connected with different books. I take that to be a good sign.

Perhaps most valuable to our gathering is that we have learned about each other’s stories, interests and experiences.  Some of us knew each other from before and some not. We check in with each other, we listen to each other, we kid each other, and we laugh together. This group has been a lovely addition to my life. I appreciate the commitment we have made to each other and to good literature. And, yes, my opening includes most of the books we have read and enjoyed.  Many thanks to my fellow readers in making this happen: Paul Wagenhofer, Richard Hendrickson, Mike Lynch, John Quinney, Vince Crockenberg, Jim Hyde, Robert Smith, Tom Cavin, Tim McCullough, John Carrigan, Geoff Greenhalgh, Greg LeRoy as well as to Charlotte Library staff.