Cyberspace library book club brings reading back to masses
By BILL DUNCAN
I am a confessed biblioholic, a literary addiction in which the person has a habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess. Over the years this affliction has led me to write book reviews for newspapers.
This week I am not writing about a particular book, but about an unusual book club -- an online book club sponsored by the Douglas County Library System. I interviewed the online book club founder, Suzanne Beecher, and found her to be even more interesting than her DearReader.com book club.
In the short space I am allowed to discuss books in the Page Turners column, I could not possibly do justice to this entrepreneurial dynamo. Even the way she started the online book club is unique.
She and her husband own a business in Florida that employs women who work out of their homes. To keep in touch with their employees, Suzanne would e-mail them every evening.
"One night I typed in part of a book that I was reading and continued it each day." It was an instant hit. "It was then I realized if I can get some of the busiest people in the world to move reading a book to their 'short list,' I could get millions of people reading again."
Suzanne sold her idea to libraries that contract with her dot.com company. She excerpts parts of a book Monday through Friday each week. Subscribers get a sample of the book in what she calls a "five minute" read and by the end of the week they will have read 23 pages, enough to tell them if reading the complete book is to their liking.
The Douglas County Library System receives four genres through the club: fiction, nonfiction, Good News (spiritual) and mystery. However, Suzanne's company offers 11 genres, including books for teens. "Eventually we will break the teen book club into one club for boys and one for girls," she said. "It is too difficult to do books for young children because the books aren't long enough and have too many illustrations."
But she is thinking about a way to get around that problem for busy parents who like to read bedtime stories to their children. She's also considering a food-related book club, because she loves to cook.
Selecting a book for the club is the greatest challenge, she said, describing the club as a way to sample books "kind of like going into an ice cream store and sampling each flavor. If you like the sample, you can order a cone. If you don't like it, sample another."
The club is a popular program offered by the Douglas County Library System. Local library patron Sylvia Norton of Sutherlin, said when she read Suzanne's five-minute read of "Learning to Fail," a book that had been on her "list to read for sometime," she requested it from the library.
Hazel Larsen of Roseburg said the book club helps her select books "I probably would have never looked at, yet when I find one the club is giving me snippets of, I immediately go to the library Web site and reserve it."
The online reader can reserve the book offered by the club by clicking on the library Web site (www.co.douglas.or.us/library) listed at the bottom of each book presentation or purchase it through the Douglas County Friends of the Library.
Douglas County residents can sign up for the book club through the library, or direct from Suzanne's Web site, www.DearReader.com.
Fans of the book club also rave over Suzanne's clever book "intro" each morning in her Dear Reader column. It is like receiving a letter from a personal friend and it doesn't take long for the readers to become Suzanne's personal friends. She ends each Dear Reader column with:
"Thanks for reading with me. It's so good to read with friends."
"In the beginning I wrote a quick note about the book, but as the number of genres grew, it was impossible to devote a note to each book," she said. "I told my staff I was going to start writing whatever was on my mind that day. They were horrified and told me I couldn't do it, but I didn't listen and that's how the column got started."
She said it turned out that her style of just talking to her readers about a "little piece of my world" was exactly what people wanted. "I love what I do. What you read is what you'd get if you met me."
I have never met her, but in an inadequate way, I hope I am able to capture her in this column. The person behind the book club is an inspiring story herself, one who describes herself as the woman in blue-tinted glasses because she suffers from benign essential bleapharopspasm, a rare eye disorder that causes spasms of the eyelid muscles, leading to excessive winking.
"I used to walk with a red and white cane," she said. "I couldn't drive. I couldn't read. I learned to work with it and to get back in the game. Today you wouldn't know that anything was a problem because I don't walk into walls anymore."
She does have to get shots every month to allow her to keep her eyelids open. The affliction didn't stop her even before she got it under control.
"I did not go to college. I have 1 1/2 years of auto mechanics in a trade school and brake jobs are my specialty," she said. She did not put the brakes on life, however. "I've owned a restaurant. I founded and published a business magazine in Madison, Wisconsin. The magazine is still being published," she said.
In her mind, one of her greatest achievements was that she organized a program to feed the homeless in Madison.
She writes her Dear Reader column five days a week. She writes daily columns for a St. Martin's Press book club, plus the day-to-day operations of the book club, which many times include traveling and speaking engagements.
"When I tell people about my life, listing all the things I have done and the 'troubles I have seen.' they are amazed. I have four children, two grandchildren and a wonderful husband who said he married me because he knew his life would never be dull. I don't intend to let him down. I'm on the ride of my life."
Bill Duncan is editor of The Senior Times. He also writes a weekly column on the Friday Opinion Page of The News-Review.
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