Sharing stories: Concordia book group celebrates 30 years of reading aloud

MOORHEAD -- Classes have been out for a couple of months at Concordia College, but in a small room in Academy Hall, a dozen people find themselves immersed deep in a literary lesson.
From left, Barb Olive, Affi Ingberg and Carol Varner are the original members of a reading group that has met at Concordia College for 30 years. Tracy Briggs / The Forum

MOORHEAD - Classes have been out for a couple of months at Concordia College, but in a small room in Academy Hall, a dozen people find themselves immersed deep in a literary lesson.

The book lovers make up a club unlike most others. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, it's less book club and more reading club, and its members wouldn't have it any other way.

The idea started when Affi Ingberg was hired as an English professor at Concordia in 1987. She and a colleague wanted to replicate an idea she first saw in graduate school: Rather than have members pick a book to read at home and discuss while together, they would pick a book for one member to read aloud to the group every week, with just brief interruptions for comments or thoughts.

"Our plan was to read Freud, Marx and Nietzsche and other books that many of us had pretended familiarity with," says Ingberg. (The rest of the group nods in agreement and laughs with her.)

"We set aside two hours every Tuesday to read together," she says. "Some of us feel we get more out of the text when we read aloud; others feel we get more out of it when we're being read to."

Doing the reading of the books, described by one member as "mostly serious nonfiction," is Carol Varner, who loves the process of reading and what follows.

"One of the strengths of this club is the diversity," she says. "It shows up in the books we choose. In reading and discussing we learn a lot from each other."

Making choices

On this recent 30th anniversary meeting, the group is reading "A Stranger in Their Own Land" by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild.

While the group was started in 1988 by Concordia College English faculty, it now has members from other disciplines including biology, math and library science, as well as non-academics who work as engineers and doctors or retirees who worked at other universities.

Together, they select the books they will read each week, making their way through five to 10 books each year. While there is no favorite choice so far, members say the most "life-changing" was the seven-part "In Search of Lost Time" by Marcel Proust, heralded by some as the greatest novel ever written. The book is full of "beautiful imagery" and many, many words - 1.2 million of them.

"It's like Mount Everest," says Ellen Aho. "We didn't set out to read all of them. But it turned into a multi-year project."

Aho, who works as a biology professor, says she looks forward to coming to the reading group every Tuesday afternoon.

"It's intellectually engaging but it's also really delightful to be read to as an adult. Who gets to have that experience anymore? It's kind of relaxing," she says.

Members have come and gone through the years and can even choose to come and go depending upon the books that are read. Still, members say the longevity of the group as a whole is due to a few things, including consistency.

"I think one of the reasons it's survived is we have a fixed time and place to meet. I think that's important. No one is in charge of deciding where we'll be and what time. We guard those two hours on our calendars all year," says Ingberg.

Mark Chekola, who has been a member for six years, says it's also a low-pressure thing.

"The fact that there is no homework, you just show up and read, you don't have to feel guilty that you didn't finish, that's a key thing," he says.

But most important, perhaps, are the friendships being formed one page turn at a time.

"The books we read are very interesting and by reading them together, we form associations and become friends with each other," says Varner.

"We stay on task during the two hours," says original member Barb Olive, "but it never gets tiresome because we're always interacting with each other and the text."

However, there is something else that has helped the club thrive. After the two hours of reading is over, most members go out to dinner together. They choose from between four different restaurants - far less than the hundreds of books they must choose from every year.

"The funny thing is, choosing where to eat is probably the most stressful part of all of this," Aho says.