Pat Godburn was busy setting the table.
With a cadre of helpers, she moved swiftly, arranging tray after tray of treats on a holiday-themed table in the center of Milton Public Library’s meeting room. Mini chocolate cheesecakes, dainty pastel macarons and a Bundt cake with a special cherry topping all awaited the two-dozen people who would soon file through the door.
Was this a special occasion?
“No, this is Book Club,” Anne Henderson said.
Indeed, Godburn has created a spread like this every month for the last 15 years as leader of Milton Public Library’s Adult Book Club, a group of mostly women that read everything from spy novels to romances. Godburn’s first-ever pick, the culinary mystery “Tough Cookie” by Diane Mott Davidson, inspired her to cook her way through the text, whipping up not just cookies but every single recipe in its pages: Chesapeake crab cakes, Mexican egg rolls, poached asparagus on frisée.
“I had one lady get mad because she said, ‘Food has no business at a book club,’ and she never came back,” Godburn recalled. “She was looking for a literary book club. This is not that. This is about the human condition.”
Godburn’s book club is more social hour than literary circle. There is no diagramming sentences or dissecting word choice. There is no scoffing or judging if you don’t finish the book (or never start it.)
Rather, you find a jovial group whose members greet one another with hugs, and this month, baked goods for the club’s annual cookie swap. There are door prizes and gifts, like the packages of fuzzy socks with Godburn’s handwritten label: “Cozy prose, cozy toes.”
“These people are all friends now,” said Henderson, a retiree who’s attended book club for three years. “It’s such a warm and welcoming atmosphere that it’s a real tragedy to see Pat leaving.”
Last Thursday was Godburn’s final club, a milestone marked with laughter and tears. She’s stepping down on a high note, giving another volunteer a chance to create something special for the town she’s called home for 35 years.
Back in 2003, Godburn worked at the library and had to convince the head librarian to let her start up a club. The library had hosted a few academics, but they weren’t that popular. Godburn’s version, however, took off immediately, save for the woman who didn’t appreciate the lit-inspired smorgasbord.
Godburn’s group was born in the heydey of Oprah’s Book Club, the influential segment that catapulted sales of Ms. Winfrey’s christened texts. Critics said Oprah’s approach was one-dimensional, urging introspection rather than a scholarly pursuit.
But Godburn thinks Oprah was on to something—a self-help group disguised as a book club—and she championed the approach, even adopting the tradition of anonymity where participants introduce themselves with first names only. Book Club is designed as a night out, a place that allows women self-expression and autonomy.
“I am amazed at the depth, especially of the women in this community, who quite often are not given a voice in a safe place to say what they really think and feel,” Godburn said. “That’s something that book clubs do. I think Oprah knew that.”
Like Winfrey, Godburn exudes an approachable, almost Southern, mien. She proffers endearments like “lovie” and “sweet girl” as she throws her head back in a genuine laugh. Offered a hand to shake, she wraps you in a hug.
It’s this warmth that encourages readers to engage without fear. Shelley Hitchcox, president of the MPL Friends of the Library who has attended Book Club since the beginning, said it’s rare for a group to have such a steady following.
“Pat’s the secret because we all love her,” she said. “She puts so much into it.”
As 7 p.m. approached last Thursday, Godburn’s last Book Club assembled: Retirees, activists, an afterschool program teacher and a Vermont utility vice president took their seats in a close circle, cradling cups to warm their hands from the winter cold. Godburn sat not at the front, as a teacher would, but among them.
Her final pick was “How to Find Love in a Bookshop,” Veronica Henry’s fictional ode to a small British bookstore that provides the backdrop for the characters’ fortunes and foibles. The protagonist, Emilia, takes over her father’s bookshop and his accumulated debt, and in sorting out the business, realizes he and his store are fixtures in the community.
There’s rarely consensus in Book Club. This one was no exception. Some decried the excessive number of characters—Colleen Sauve made a two-sided handwritten list just to keep track—while others thought they were memorable. Karen Ciechanowicz and Tom Frank thought the book was too soapy and melodramatic. Others called it “nice.”
“I could fall in love with the bookstore,” Madeline Martin shared. “That connected me with that whole book.”
She rated it a 10, eliciting gasps: “It talked to me. It made me think,” she said. “Coming to Vermont after living in dearth [for] 30 years in Florida where you’re at 1.6 million people, you don’t have too many people who care. Community in Vermont cares.”
Godburn thinks books bolster these bonds. Her club members may have nothing in common beyond the text they just read, but that’s a starting place for deeper conversation. After reading a book about World War II, one woman struggled to reconcile the image of her gentle father, a WWII veteran, with the possibility he’d killed someone in battle.
“It was riveting for us to stop and think about that for a moment,” Godburn said.
In her typical style, Godburn’s last review drew out themes and symbolism and parallels with real life. To her, Henry’s novel showed that books connect us as humans, which was her aim with Book Club all along.
“You listen, you talk, you share, you laugh and sometimes you cry, and as a result, you grow,” she said. “You are made more complete by this experience, and it is no lie that that is a beautiful thing to behold.”