The Booklovers meant business. When my grandmother, Merle Lingle, hosted the club, she set the stage for an educational afternoon with all the accoutrements of an elegant social affair, circa 1939.
After a visit to the hairdresser’s, she prepared a colorful spread of candied grapefruit peel and tomato aspic. She gently placed her favorite red cups for coffee and neatly arranged each salad—heart-shaped lettuce, dates, two crackers, boiled dressing—to be served with hot biscuits and sausage.
Then she and the other club members, all women, settled into their chairs “listening almost breathlessly” to Miss Maude Vinson’s discourse on Russia.
Davidson has certainly changed since Merle, the wife of then-college president Walter L. Lingle, detailed her book club preparations in a family letter. But one thing has not: The Booklovers Club, founded in 1899 for Davidson College professors’ wives, provides women with study and time to socialize; although, these days there’s more likely to be a bottle of Chardonnay on the sideboard than aspic. On May 1, the club had its first-ever virtual meeting over Zoom.
“I think it’s lasted so long because we were a small town, and it was a way for these really bright women, who weren’t professors… to have some intellectual stimulation. It was a way for them to expand their minds,” says Nancy Lingle, a current member who is the adult librarian at the Davidson Public Library and happens to be my sister-in-law.
Jennie Martin, wife of Davidson College professor and later president William J. Martin Jr., founded the Booklovers, the first women’s book club in town.
Picture Davidson, a town of about 900 people, at the turn of the 20th century. The college had no electricity and a recently installed rudimentary waterworks. To get to Charlotte meant a slow train ride or arduous journey down dusty sand-clay roads. Faculty wives relied on college-sponsored concerts and speakers, and each other, for entertainment.
“It definitely would have been a rather closed-in, small town life,” said Jan Blodgett, a current Booklovers member, retired Davidson College archivist, and co-author of One Town, Many Voices, a Davidson history. “You knew all of your neighbors. Everybody had their place in the social strata.”
The dozen women who formed Booklovers, first known as the Woman’s Book Club of Davidson, did so in an era when women’s study groups were gaining popularity throughout the United States, partly as a way to bridge the gender gap in higher education. The twice-monthly meetings met an intellectual and social need, according to the group’s earliest chatty minutes in the Davidson College archives.
The minutes chronicle members’ excitement at the latest shipment of books and reveal snippets of life in Davidson: parlor decor, the comings and goings of visitors, the difficulties of recruiting a dependable club secretary.
The group devoted its first regular meeting to Thomas Nelson Page, the author of Red Rock, a now horrifyingly nostalgic novel of Southern Reconstruction. Other books that year revealed a thirst for knowledge of life beyond the region: among them, a biography of Marie Antoinette and The Battle of the Strong, an 1899 best-seller about an 18th century war in the Channel Islands.
In the early years, meetings opened with a review of current events, which in 1902 included research into a typhoid vaccine and the United States’ possible purchase of the Panama Canal from France.
By 1907, the club had set the pattern that, with slight variation, has carried it into the 21st century: Members vote on a theme for each year. Then, at each meeting, a member reports on a book chosen to represent that theme. These women, some of whom would have traveled or known missionaries or hosted international students, looked to the world at-large for themes. Russia made the list at least three times.
One missing topic: women’s suffrage. The debate over the 19th amendment was raging in North Carolina when in 1920 Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, making it law. But if the Booklovers were moved by their newfound right to vote, the meeting minutes give no indication. They studied “Grand Opera” in 1920–21, and much later, in 1937–38, turned their attention to “The Twentieth Century Woman.”
Women’s study clubs often steered clear of controversy, perhaps for fear of being shunned or shut down, Theodora Penny Martin notes in her history of women’s groups, The Sound of Our Voices. Typically, they stuck to safe topics, including history, literature and geography.
“I don’t remember that any of the clubs [in Davidson]from that time period were politically active,” Blodgett says. “I don’t know if that meant that the groups were just really cohesive, or if, in fact, there was enough difference that it was safest not to do something.”
Faculty wives were busy with families and furthering their husbands’ careers, hosting college events and visiting professors.
“Some of these women must have been half mad at all they were doing,” Blodgett says. “They had the brains and skills to be doing so much more, and there was no other option.”
By 2000, Booklovers had evolved. The late Louise Nelson, Davidson’s first female professor, joined, but only after she retired from the faculty. The club switched to monthly meetings to accommodate busy schedules. Its 22 current members range in age from about 40 to almost 90 and include professors, teachers, librarians, attorneys and other professionals. Yet, while skirts and home-baked goods are no longer de rigueur, the group relishes a good book report and vigorous discussion.
“Yes, it was a lot of work,” June Kimmel says about her 2002 report, chronology and glossary for The Ornament of the World, a book on Medieval Spain. “But I figured, if they are going to sit and listen to it, I want them to get as much as they can out of it.”
The format may partly account for Booklovers’ longevity, Nancy Lingle says.
“A lot of book clubs, people don’t even read the books,” she says. “They just show up to have a little wine and chat with their friends.”
The Booklovers, Lingle says, have stuck to the goal of challenging their minds.
My grandmother grew up in Davidson and lived there more than half her life. She attended Charlotte Female Institute, now Queens University of Charlotte. She wanted to be a missionary to Brazil, but her family thought her too sickly. Instead, she had six children and served as partner for her husband, who was a minister, professor and college president. But she loved challenging her mind and did so for 24 years as a faithful member of Booklovers.
It wasn’t until 1953, with her husband in declining health, that she resigned, writing, “I can think of nothing that has given me more pleasure than my association with this group.”
What They Read
Although the Booklovers Club started out sharing and assigning books, in 1911 they changed formats, asking individual members to pick titles based around an annual theme. Sadly, as years passed and enthusiasm ebbed and flowed for taking comprehensive minutes, many specific titles have been lost. But here’s a sample list of themes and books that show the club’s range through the decades.
1903: The Octopus by Frank Norris
1911: The Mahogany Tree by William Makepeace Thackery
1925: Provincial Types in American Literature
1931: Some Studies in 19th and 20th Century Literature: Shadows on a Rock by Willa Cather
1944: Literature of the United Nations: A Bell for Adano by John Hersey
1961: Contemporary Southern Writers
1971: Women and Their Professions
1981: Latin America
1995: Science Fiction
2020: Black Women Authors: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou