Yvonne Abraham

For more than a half century, these women have been bound by books

Globe Staff/File

LEXINGTON — It started as a kind of escape. Or, if not an escape, as a way to stay connected to parts of themselves crowded out by the relentless demands of small children.

“We were tired of talking about rashes and poopy diapers,” Judy Alexander recalled. “So somebody said, ‘Why don’t we talk about a book instead?’ ”

It was 1968. They were in their mid to late 20s, just starting out as mothers. Most of those who joined the book group went on to long, impressive careers as teachers, therapists, civic leaders, entrepreneurs. But right then, those seven women needed a space just for themselves.


And so they started with Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook,” and moved on to Eugene O’Neill, Sophocles, and Turgenev.

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They kept going. And going. Most of the books in those early decades were hard slogs, challenging tomes that opened their discussions out into giant questions of race, politics, class, and gender.

“We said to ourselves, ‘What are we trying to prove?’ ” said Zina Jordan, a founding member. “The books got a little shorter, a little more realistic.”

The group grew to about 20 members. They witnessed each other’s passages: eyeglasses, pregnancies, a lost parent or spouse, becoming a grandparent, the onset of illness. They continued to meet, even as their careers grew more demanding. They bring the wisdom won through decades to the books, in addition to their prodigious intellects.

Some of them socialize or volunteer together outside the meetings, and support each other through crises. But when the group is in session, their connection is primarily intellectual: It is always about the books. A couple of members lead each discussion, making sure everybody is heard. North of 450 meetings in, they’ve got the routine down.


“These people have read everything,” said Jordan. “And they have a lot to say. ”

Last month, the book was “Becoming,” by former first lady Michelle Obama. The group gathered around a large table, sipping coffee and chatting as members arrived. After a few minutes of catching up — one member had recently become a great-grandparent for the first time — they were off.

“How did she deal with the conflict between her aspirations and Barack’s before he became president?” offered a moderator.

“Therapy!” said a member.

“She was very tuned into him,” another woman said.


How did she come to terms with the life she was being asked to lead?

“She came out thinking, ‘I am responsible for my joy in life,’ and that’s an important lesson to learn,” said one woman, a therapist.

“He learned too,” said another member.

The women talked about the role race played in Michelle Obama’s treatment; about her mother, and the strength of that relationship; about the Obamas’ need for privacy, and what we expect from public figures; about the title, and how people evolve.

“Becoming is a continuous process,” said one. “It never ends.”

What has this book club become, over these 51 years? A refuge of sorts; a place to gather with smart, interesting friends; a way to guide themselves through new thinking, and make sense of the world.

Most of all, this monthly gathering has been a still point amid upheaval, a place apart.

“It was a lifeline in the beginning, when we were college grads with houses full of dirty diapers,” Jordan said. “And now I’m looking for intellectual stimulation at the end of life.”

When it comes down to it, what has bound them for so long is simple.

“We all love to read well-written books,” said Alexander.

They like the way their fellow members think. And the meaning between the lines they find — together, around that table.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at andon Twitter @GlobeAbraham