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Books of My Life (The Ribbon)

FALL-2011-RIBBON-COVER-1-231x300Books of my Life
(The Ribbon, Fall 2011)
By Zsuzsa Béres
I’m writing a book about my life. Until now, I’ve merely been the humble reader of the lives, thoughts and feelings, the joys and sorrows shared in writing by others from time immemorial. Books have been my constant companions and perhaps my best and only true friends at certain junctures in my life. I have read them on my own, together with classmates, in unison with fellow book group members, after books had been read to me for years by Mother and Father, child minders, and kindergarten teachers before I learned to read for myself. I grew up with lots of books around the house. My parents, voracious readers, could not bear to part with anything they’d already read.  I pretty much feel the same way about my own books, and will only consider letting go of any of them when I’m moving house.

While essentially a solitary activity, the book reading habit can and does bring people together socially as well. I’ve experienced this myself while living abroad and seeking personal connection and friendship in a different culture. One wonderful place where the book ruled supreme was Santa Barbara, California, where I lived for several years. Between local independent bookstore gems like Chaucer’s,  the Arts & Lectures series of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and not mention the annual Book & Author Festival, this enchanting small coastal town certainly did not lack in intellectual pursuits for the incorrigible book worm.

It was likewise in Santa Barbara that I discovered the joys of belonging to a local book group. As one of Santa Barbara’s best-kept secrets, it took me quite some time to stumble into one of them. It so happened that as a feature writer for the local business weekly The Pacific Coast Business Times I met Janet, a local hospital spokesperson, at a professional networking event. As we worked together on feature stories for my paper we also grew to like each other. Janet was Irish and had moved to the States after marrying an American citizen. Like me, she’d been through the ups and downs of immigration proceedings and the challenges and rewards of starting life over from scratch in a completely different cultural environment. So right away we were able to relate to one another in a way we couldn’t with others. When Janet invited me to her home to celebrate her new American citizenship it was clearly a milestone in my life in Santa Barbara.

And when a few months later she invited me to join her book group, I knew I’d crossed the invisible, usually non-negotiable line between professional relationships and something more personal. I was delighted to accept and couldn’t wait to meet the whole group. This was the second time I’d been invited to anybody’s home in Santa Barbara, where local people, while  publicly quite cordial in this tiny oasis of picture perfect blue skies and almost eternal sunshine,  tend to keep to themselves.

Joining Janet’s book group – and such  privilege was by invitation only -  revealed to me a whole new side to the Santa Barbara community. Then five years old, the group comprised 6-8 regular members, with each monthly get together held at a different member’s home. The group chose which books to read and discuss together and planned 3-4 months ahead. Besides following their own personal interests, members also kept track of news of latest publications, book reviews, book club recommendations, and hot bestsellers. I waited for a few months – just to get a good feel for it all – before starting to make my own recommendations.

I really enjoyed our monthly book group sessions. It wasn’t just the actual intellectual activity of talking about a book. It was the whole “book group” scene that I came to love. Its ambiance of camaraderie, of being welcomed in someone’s cherished home. The tastefully set dining tables with coffee and tea things eagerly awaiting our imbibing pleasure – after our intellectual labors were done, with a freshly baked (or heated up) pie with single or whipped cream thrown in for good measure. There was a very nice feeling of tradition and continuity to it all, a fleeting experience of permanence before the rude awakening of reentry into the impermanence of the world beyond our monthly intellectual pursuits. But even that was made as pleasant as possible by effortless carpooling to each other’s homes. We were all women and except for Janet and I all  members were local elementary school teachers.

In the two years I was a member this Santa Barbara book group I read and shared discussion about 22 books! And not only that. In doing so I met and became friendly with some very nice Santa Barbara women and their families. Over time, I learned a great deal about their lives and attachments formed. We didn’t become close personal friends, but that universally shared love of books and thirst for knowledge and camaraderie was just what I needed there and then. Now it’s my turn to give back at least a fraction of what I’ve received. So not only am I writing a book about my life that others might perhaps read and discuss some day –  I’m also starting a Book Salon Group for members of the International Women’s Club of Budapest. To use our minds, share thoughts and connect with women.

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