When Mary Clare Venuto launched an online book club for fellow Rutgers alumni in the summer of 2019, the former English major figured she’d attract maybe 100 devoted readers, tops. Nearly 400 alumni showed up.
Then along came the pandemic.
Venuto and her colleague Margie Brining Berenato, working in the Office of Alumni Engagement on the Rutgers-Camden campus, watched in amazement as the project exploded, ultimately attracting more than 1,700 book-lovers from across all campuses of the university with newfound time on their hands. It’s growing still.
The Rutgers Alumni Book Club is virtual, free of charge and open to faculty, staff and current students in addition to alumni. Reading options, selected every few months by popular vote, offer a range of genres, including fiction, history, biography and professional development.
Readers participate through a facilitated online forum. Toward the end of each session, they have the opportunity to join a Zoom meeting featuring either the book’s author or a Rutgers faculty member with expertise in the book’s subject matter.
Occasionally, the final meeting features a live online discussion among members of the book club when an author or appropriate faculty member isn’t available.
After running several successful in-person reading groups on the South Jersey campus, Venuto, acting director of Alumni Engagement and Annual Giving at Rutgers-Camden, kicked off the virtual version with Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.
Venuto, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Rutgers-Camden in 2007 and 2009, leads the book club with Berenato, who serves as special projects coordinator in the Office of Alumni Engagement in Camden after earning her bachelor’s degree – also in English – from Rutgers-Camden in 2015.
Club participants hail from 39 states and as far as Israel and Puerto Rico. They range in age from their 20s through their 90s, and represent a dazzling array of disciplines.
“English is a big one among the majors, of course, but we also have engineers, attorneys, people in medical fields and education,” says Berenato. “It’s nice to be able to hear different people’s point of view and to gather virtually from all walks of life. Their life experiences contribute to how we perceive what we’re reading.”
Rutgers alumnus William Benson of New York City, a psychologist with Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, says he might never have picked up a novel about generations of a Korean family living in Japan if not for the book club he discovered when the pandemic hit.
The 2016 graduate of the clinical psychology doctoral program at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology joined in July of 2020, in time for a Zoom discussion about Pachinko, written by Min Jin Lee. Associate professor Nick Kapur, of the Rutgers-Camden History Department, gave a historical perspective to the Korean diaspora depicted in the award-winning novel.
The Rutgers University Alumni Association (RUAA) funds the book club, which also receives administrative support from the Rutgers Business School and colleagues in the RUAA.
It’s held through a partnership of PBC Guru of Silver Spring, Md., an online book club management company that hosts similar programs at 250 colleges and private high schools nationwide, including the University of Pennsylvania, Lehigh, University of Maryland and Boston College.
The clubs range from 50 members to more than 3,000, with Rutgers being among the largest, says Megan Behm, PBC Guru book club manager, who oversees the online forums and facilitates the voting process by which members choose books.
“Rutgers is unique among many of our university clients in that the program is shared among the three Rutgers campuses [Newark, New Brunswick and Camden], rather than each campus having its own program. We think that’s a great approach for connecting the larger community,” Behm says.
Popular books have included The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, Long Bright River by Liz Moore, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
Sessions begin with a chapter-by-chapter reading schedule, followed by a series of questions that allow participants to comment at their convenience. Readers are also encouraged to add their own recommendations for additional reading.
Some books generate more spirited debate than others. Just Mercy, attorney Bryan Stevenson’s exploration of how the U.S. legal system treats minorities, elicited one of the highest rates of reader posts, the organizers say.
“I thought Just Mercy was excellent,” says club member Janet Parrotta, who received a bachelor of arts in sociology from Douglass College in 1980, later working with information systems for New Jersey social services programs.
Now teaching English as a Second Language in her retirement, the Hamilton resident says she joined the club to “read books outside my comfort zone” – a motivation other participants echoed.
“A lot of the books we’ve read really opened my eyes,” Parrotta notes, singling out Just Mercy as well as Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, this summer’s featured book by Isabel Wilkerson.
Christina Bettencourt, who received a master’s in health administration from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in 2020, generally looks for adventure stories, historical fiction, and maybe a little bit of the paranormal when she’s choosing reading material.
She’s eagerly anticipating digging into the club’s current selection, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, a biography that goes behind the scenes with the television personality and his long-running television show for kids.
“I don’t know much about him, because I was born after his time, so it will be good to explore what he did and what he was about,” the New Brunswick resident says.
To join the Rutgers Alumni Book Club, check out the Book Club website.