‘A wonderful experience’: La Jolla-based book club celebrates 65 years

Gerry Horwitz, Sandy Levinson and Phyllis Minick are founding members of a 65-year-old book club based in La Jolla.
Gerry Horwitz, Sandy Levinson and Phyllis Minick are three of the founding members of a 65-year-old book club based in La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Much like books themselves, a La Jolla-based book club has covered a lot in the past 65 years. The club’s changes might not be as dramatic as art-based covers, a sea of celebrity biographies and the introduction of e-readers, but the group has seen members come and go following marriages, moves, births and deaths and has somehow kept the same meeting schedule and enthusiasm for reading and literary discussion.

Since its founding in 1957, the group (which doesn’t have a formal name) has read around 11 books a year — more than 700 total. It started with five La Jolla residents and now has 16 members. This month the group is reading “The Promise” by Damon Galgut.

Original member Sandy Levinson said the founders were young mothers who were not in the workforce and “wanted to have this book club as a bit of an escape from the rituals of motherhood.”

With Levinson’s mother in a Great Books Program that provided some of the early recommendations, the club started with “foundational classics,” founding member Gerry Horwitz said. “That’s one of the reasons we were able to keep going; we had such a good start.”

From there, the group decided it needed a dedicated discussion leader. It found one who led other book groups and posed questions for the group to consider.

“We wanted to go deeper and we wanted books that took us deeper,” Horwitz said.

The group sought discussions that went beyond “the usual ones you might have with a friend after you read the same book,” such as “How did you feel when this character died?” or “What did you think of the end?”

“Very often there are books we read that I wouldn’t have picked up and read. … I find it an enriching part of my life.”

— Sandy Levinson

One of the club’s later discussion leaders was a retired political science professor, and some of the book choices at the time shifted toward that topic.

Then the members occasionally would lead discussions themselves.

As members cycled out as they entered the workforce, moved or, in some cases, disagreed with book choices, new members cycled in.

Upon her retirement as a college professor 14 years ago, Judy Price Lewis was invited to join by her sister-in-law and founding member Teddie Lewis.

“Most of the women had a college education, were interested in the world, had intelligent and lively opinions, all at a time when women were supposed to be at home raising their kids,” Judy said of the club’s history. “We needed an intellectual outlet … and this was a wonderful place for it.”

It’s also been a place for a bit of fun.

On anniversaries and when book club meetings overlapped with holidays, the club would throw parties and invited spouses to attend. A favorite was the annual costume party, where members dressed as literary characters.

In some cases, the books motivated members to travel. Phyllis Minick went to Africa when her children were grown, inspired by the books the club read that were set there.

“Very often there are books we read that I wouldn’t have picked up and read. It’s a boon to me,” Levinson said. “I also think discussing a book gives you an insight you wouldn’t otherwise have. There are issues that come up that you might not have thought about, and it crystalizes what the book is really about. … I find it an enriching part of my life.”

Horwitz agreed, saying: “I have gotten a lot of stimulation from the books we’ve read. There are many books that we have read and discussed that I never heard of before. There are many books I didn’t want to read, but I read them because if I am going to be in book club, I’m going to read the book. But I find I change my mind after I read and discuss the book. That has been a wonderful experience; it made me a better reader and a better analyst.”

A lunch celebrating the 65th anniversary of a La Jolla book club is held May 11 at Vi at La Jolla Village.
A lunch celebrating the 65th anniversary of a La Jolla book club is held May 11 at Vi at La Jolla Village with members and guests.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Present and future of the club

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when restrictions were placed on gatherings, some questioned the club’s future.

“Some of us had experience with Zoom, but I thought some of the women were in their 80s and 90s and I was worried about how they would take to it,” Price Lewis said. “But everyone accepted it immediately.”

Moving the meetings online has enabled some members who resigned from the club after moving out of the area to come back in, including one who now lives in New York, Minick said.

It also opened the door for the next generation of members — including Teddie Lewis’ daughter Jennifer, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., and teaches at Wayne State University. In hopes that her mother would be comfortable attending an in-person book club celebration May 11, Jennifer flew out to La Jolla. Teddie was not, but Jennifer went in her stead because the club was “such a huge part of my mother’s life and mine,” she said.

“I always knew about it, and when I was in college, I was invited to a book club meeting, which felt like a really big step up,” Jennifer told the La Jolla Light in front of some of the founding members. “And I still remember reading the book in advance and thinking I was at a fancy college and I would impress everyone. But listening to the conversation, I was blown away and hearing things that changed how I saw the book and how I saw all of you, who were always my mother’s social friends. I didn’t understand the intellectual power in the room. The image I had of you was not full.”

Jennifer would continue to go to meetings when she was in town. And at the May 11 gathering, Jennifer officially joined the club.

“They helped me read and see the world differently,” she said. “It inspires me how you are there for each other and connect through books.” ◆