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Book club marks 90th year with special lecture

Chip Ellis
Members of the Book Lovers Club of Charleston pause for a photo during their November meeting at Bridge Road Bistro. From left are Jean Peters, Twana White, Elaine Chiles (seated), Yvonne Moore, Eva Ledbetter and Mildred Holt. Members not shown are Sonya Armstrong, Paulette Mabry, Kendall Williams and Loretta Young.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It may be their 90th anniversary, but the Book Lovers Club of Charleston is giving the gift.

Founded in the fall of 1923, the group of no more than a dozen women is once again celebrating a significant milestone by bringing in a speaker for a free community lecture.

For its 60th in 1983, poet Maya Angelou was the guest speaker; for the 90th, Annie McDaniel Abrams will speak at 3 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Woman's Club of Charleston. The Arkansas historian is a retired educator who has been deeply involved in state politics and community issues for six decades.

"She's considered the Helen Thomas of Arkansas because of how she questions politicians," said Mildred Holt, retired from a long career with Kanawha County Schools.

Holt is the senior member in the Book Lovers Club. She vividly recalls the first book review she gave.

"I was terrified. My English teacher, Dr. Lorena Kemp, was there," she remembered. "At first, the women were mostly teachers and residents of West Virginia State College. They were very proper."

Sarah Meriweather Nutter, a Howard University graduate and the wife of a Charleston lawyer, invited 12 women to her house in 1923. She wanted a forum to talk about books and literary themes.

The group has operated more of less the same for 90 years, meeting once a month, September through May. At its May meeting, the group selects a theme for the following season and schedules who for each meeting will serve as hostess and who will be the reviewer. The reviewers must let the program leader know by midsummer what books they have picked so a booklet can be created for that year's programs.

Those booklets, from 1923 to present, are among the club's documents stored in the archives in the library at West Virginia State University.

Twana White was a reviewer for the 2011-12 theme of tolerance. "The first thing I did was look up the definition of tolerance in the dictionary. Then I typed in 'tolerance' on the Barnes & Noble website and read excerpts of books that came up."

She selected "Relating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire" by Wendy Brown to read and review for the club. Other members may read the book but aren't expected to.

For the same theme, Elaine Chiles reviewed "The Rainbow People of God" by Desmond Tutu, which she cited as her favorite book since she joined the club in 1997. "I had to put it down sometimes, it was so powerful. It wasn't an easy read, it was very emotional for me."

For this year's theme, women of color in America, Chiles selected a biography of Maria Stewart. "History hasn't done her justice," said Chiles, in recapping the story of an orphaned 5-year-old black girl in the 1820s in New England.

Placed into servitude, Stewart managed to learn to read and to write, eventually becoming a political writer.

For her review, Chiles dressed like a woman in the early 19th century -- in layers -- with a hat and lantern as props and delivered an hour-long presentation. "I took my character a little too seriously," said Chiles, smiling.

The group reads nearly all nonfiction, but it hasn't always been that way. Among the books chosen for its inaugural year theme, the modern English and American novel, were "Fascinating Stranger" by Booth Tarkington and "One of Ours" by Willa Cather.

Ten years later, for the theme current thought, the ladies heard reviews on "The Good Earth" by Pearl Buck and "Death Takes a Holiday" by Walker Ferris.

It wasn't until the 1935-36 season that the group specially focused on the Negro in American literature with reviews on Negro poetry, folk songs and spirituals. They gave reviews of fiction by Rudolph Fischer, W.E.B. DuBois and Jessie Fuset and the young poet Langston Hughes.

Always the linguist, Holt jotted down some of her thoughts about the Book Lovers Club of Charleston. "A dominate-shaping force in my life ... I know not where else I would be so immersed in so many-thought information ... We have traveled the world ... We have done it all through books," she noted.

The group shares its love of books each year by buying and donating books to children in several classrooms at Bridgeview and Watts elementary schools.

Related story: Book club speaker is longtime civil-rights activist

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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