By boasting a statistically impossible number of local bookstores and authors, it’s clear that Charlottesville is a town with an ardent love for all things literary. It’s also a beer town, supporting more than a few local breweries and countless other watering holes that serve up brews from nearby ZIP codes. Inspired by these two interests, the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library created the Books on Tap reading series, held on the first Thursday of each month at Champion Brewing Company.
The idea grew out of a similar event that JMRL Central Branch Manager Krista Farrell attended at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg. Importing the idea to Charlottesville, Farrell enlisted local resident Sean Tubbs to help with brainstorming before the first event, which took place in October. Since then, Books on Tap has met monthly at Champion to discuss what readers liked —and disliked—about the most recent selection.
Titles have included Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan, among others. “In December we talked about a book I’d never heard of and I actually enjoyed hearing what others didn’t like about the book,” Tubbs says. “I loved [the book], but the group was a way to hear why others didn’t share the experience. We need more places in our community where we can safely disagree with each other, and this group has been fantastic for me.”
Books on Tap discussions typically last an hour, with Farrell facilitating the conversation. Attendees are responsible for their own bar tabs, but the Friends of the Library provides snacks. The event has grown in participation each month. “With the advent of social media, I find myself wanting to find out what other people think about the books I’ve read,” says Tubbs. “But that’s a flat and hollow experience compared with actually talking to people about their experience reading the same material.”
For the February edition of Books on Tap, the discussion will focus on Angela Flournoy’s 2015 fiction debut, The Turner House, which earned a place on several 2015 best books lists, including NPR’s Best Books of 2015, the New York Times’ Notable Books of 2015, and O, The Oprah Magazine’s 10 Favorite Books of the Year. Flournoy was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. “One of the attendees actually suggested this title and we thought it was a great choice because we knew she was coming for the Virginia Festival of the Book [and that] the book had been on some notable lists for 2015 and tied in with Black History Month in February,” says Farrell.
The novel explores the multilayered relationships in a large African-American family as its members navigate parenting and growing old in Detroit. It’s an examination of the city’s economic despair, but it’s also a celebration of family. The sublimely readable tome touches on other topics as well, including mental illness and beliefs in the supernatural. In other words, it’s the perfect book club book: fast-paced and enjoyable to read, while grappling with issues that are, to some degree, universal. It’s not a book with a clear right or wrong; there is no winner or loser. It’s a book that asks the reader to consider his or her personal perspective, while forcing the characters within the pages to do the same.
Reading the book in advance isn’t a requirement for attending Books on Tap, and neither is drinking beer. According to Farrell, anyone is welcome to just show up and listen to the discussion if they don’t feel prepared or eager to contribute.
While JMRL hosts other book clubs for a variety of ages and reading interests, Books on Tap is designed to attract an audience of readers that is, well, untapped. “We wanted to try a book club outside of the library…[to] bring the library to a location and demographic that might not be coming in to the library. We hope to reach new potential patrons, connect and engage (to the library and to each other) and demonstrate that the library has something for them too,” says Farrell.
Indeed, Books on Tap has already shown it’s a way to transcend negative stereotypes of libraries by bringing books to the places where readers already spend time. “I’m always impressed with how our library is constantly looking for ways to advance their mission,” says Tubbs. “It’s not just about new buildings. It’s about taking reading into local spaces such as Champion, where the clientele is generally intelligent and interested in the world. I love the idea that the library is trying to create pockets of community.”
The next Books on Tap discussion takes place on February 4 at 7pm at Champion Brewing Company. Later this month, JMRL will also host a kick-off party at Champion for the 2016 Big Read program, featuring Carson McCullers’ classic, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and a custom-brewed Champion beer to match: Lonely Hunter Ale. For more details, visit JMRL.org.
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