Interview with Judy Levin



We interviewed Judy Levin, renowned book discussion leader and favorite presenter here at Lake Forest Library. Be sure to join her each month for the Afternoons with Judy Levin book group!

Kate: Hi, I'm Kate Buckardt. I'm here at Lake Forest Library with Judy Levin. Judy conducts our "Afternoons with Judy Levin" book discussions that we have here once a month. She brings 35 years of teaching and a degree in English to the public and shares her passion for books in a wonderful setting here at the Library. I wanted to ask Judy a few questions so we can get to know her and learn a little bit more about what we do here at the Library. What prompted you to start these book discussion groups, Judy?

Judy: That's probably the first question everybody always asks me. It started a long time ago. In the late 70s I was in a book club myself with a group of friends and occasionally we hired people who came in and led the discussions. Then we said "Oh, we could do this ourselves." And guess what? It kept being my turn. Everybody said, "You do such a great job at it." I loved it; with my English major and teaching degree, it was just a passion.

I loved the fact that we adults could take a break from our babies. We were all moms, everybody had little children. It was like we had a night out: we're going to talk about the book, and I was always the one who was pulling the book discussion back by saying, "Let's not talk about the brownie recipe … let's not talk about toilet training … let's get back to the book." Little by little, other people heard through word-of-mouth that I was doing book discussions, and it's been the most wonderfully developing career.

Kate: I think what's so nice about the discussions here are that we have all different ages, we have men and women who come, we have people use this to meet up with their friends, and then we have people who have maybe just moved to the community who wanted to try something new. How do you go about picking the books?

Judy: Well, picking the books, that's another question everybody always asks me. It's wonderful, but there's so much out there. I follow all of the publisher websites, and the newspapers and the magazines that review books, and it's overwhelming how many books come out every single week, so it's difficult.

I of course look at things like The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, and some of the big book selling lists. I also love following the little independent book stores and seeing what they're promoting. And awards lists of course, although I don't always go for the one who wins the Pulitzer Prize or the one who wins the Man Booker. Sometimes I look at the finalists and they are sometimes the more interesting ones, or the smaller prizes that are given out.

One thing I do look for, is I like to try to go around the world. We did a book today that was set in Ireland. Next month we're doing one that's set in Idaho mostly. Then we have another book that's set in Oakland about the Native American community. I love to find different writing styles, and then travel around the world and hear different voices, different people's stories.

Kate: Have there been any books that standout that were particularly wonderful for discussion? Or any that you thought would be and were surprised that they weren't?

Judy: The first time I do a book discussion is always very interesting to me. I've read the book, I've decided I want to bring it to my groups, I think people will have feelings about it. Whether they love it or don't love it, I want people to have some kind of reaction to the book.

So I walk into that first book discussion and I never know what I'm going to get. Am I going to get a room full of people that go "This is great, we loved it" or am I going to get, "Why'd you pick this book?" And actually the best is usually if I get a mix of opinions in the room. Although I really want everybody to enjoy what they're reading. The best to me is if people say even if they didn't like the book, if they didn't enjoy it, they finished it anyways, and they were interested to get to the discussion, because they wanted to hear not only what I had to say about it, but what the other people in the group had to say.

I did think about one book in particular that still comes up in my discussions all the time that people across the board loved. I found it fascinating because it was a nonfiction book, and if you ask most people, "What kinds of books do you want to read in a book discussion group?" they will mostly say contemporary fiction. Very rarely will anybody say "Oh, I want to read nonfiction." But the book was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. And I don't think I have found anyone who didn't say they were so glad to have read that book. They learned so much. Not just about the science, but about sociology, about history, about culture, about the African American community, about the medical community, about the testing, and so much. It was just a wonderful, wonderful story. So that will stick out in my memory for a very, very long time.

Kate: Do you have any tips for people who do their own book clubs at home? How do you go about researching the book and author or coming up with discussion questions?

Judy: There's so much online now. When I started doing this in the late 70s and early 80s, to find the research on an author I would have to go to a library and look in the books that listed all the magazine articles, track down the magazine or look up the articles with microfiche and microfilm, and make copies of things; it was an enormous project. Now you sit down, you type in the author's name, the title of the book. You have a lot to weed through, but you can do it at 2:00 in the morning if you want, which is an advantage. So there's so much online and easy to research.

Also, I will say, I'm very proud that I was in this professionally before Oprah hit the scene with her famous book clubs, but she really did a service, because the fact that she was able to sell so many books when she picked one, the publishing houses started to realize there was a hunger for book discussion materials, so they started putting them on their websites. There are several other sources of book discussion materials as well: Reading Group Guides and Lit Lovers, for example, that publish biographies of the author, excerpts of reviews, and discussion questions. And most of the time when a book comes out in the paperback version all of that's at the end of the book. So it's pretty easy now for people, if they don't want to do a lot of their own development of resources of things. The key, I think, is being able to elicit the conversation—not just to ask the question, but to get the conversation going.

Kate: Anything else you want to talk about?

Judy: I don't know. What can I say to book clubs out there that they might be interested in? Take a chance on a book! I would tell them to look at new authors a lot. It's always fun to read an author's first book if they've gotten good reviews. They don't have to be a famous award-winning author. Take a chance on it, read something different that's outside your box, nonfiction, memoirs are always interesting. Pick a classic. The PBS series last year, the Great American Read, with the 100 best-loved books in America, is s a great resource list if people are looking for something different. For me and my groups, I'd say the most popular genre is historical fiction. Everybody seems to love that. I do too, but step outside of that once in a while, and go to something different: books in translation, go to another country. What's an interesting book written by a Japanese author? By an Australian author?

Kate: Right, you can have a whole theme for your year. I think that's what's so great about coming to your book discussions: if you want to participate, you can, but if you wanted to sit back and listen and learn something, you don't have to feel intimidated. If you haven't finished the book, you can still enjoy the discussion. So I think people should take a chance and come!

Judy: Absolutely. If somebody sitting in the room hasn't finished the book, the discussion leader may think, "Well, we shouldn't talk about the ending." I say, nope, you gotta do it. Don't hold back. If people didn't finish it or didn't read it, of course they're still welcome to come, but we're having a full and open discussion and everyone is allowed to say what they want. There’s always new people coming, but there’s a group of about seven or eight who are pretty much here every single month. They’re not like a clique or a group of friends necessarily, but they’ve become friends in the book discussion group. I think everybody has respect for what the other one says, whether they agree or disagree. It has to be that open forum where you feel free and comfortable to express your opinions about the actual book, about a theme in the book. You're still going to be respected for whatever it is you say.

Kate: Alright, well, thank you!

Judy: You're very welcome. Thank you for inviting me to do this. I hope people are interested and please come to our book discussions!

Interview transcript edited for readability, clarity, and length.