Memoir recounts men’s book club that’s lasted for 2 decades

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My experience (and the general assumption) is that book groups are comprised of mostly members who identify as female.

But “The Dayton Book Guys” is a book group of 25 male readers who have been gathering for two decades to discuss books. And now, one of their members — J. Bradford Tillson Jr. — has published a memoir about the group’s experiences in not only discussing, but bonding over books.

Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Devil in the Grove,” which was also the 2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize nonfiction runner-up, avers in a blurb that the book shares a tale that is “passionate and compelling.”

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The book, which was printed and produced by Oregon Printing Communications in Dayton and includes photos by Andy Snow, is now available via Amazon.com.

Recently, Tillson — who is the former publisher of the Dayton Daily News — and I corresponded, and he provided insight into his memoir.

Q: Who was in the group? How did it get started?

A: In late 1999 or early 2000, Dayton attorney Jon Sebaly came up with the idea of forming an all-male book group. Jon’s concept was the group would meet monthly over dinner at a Dayton-area restaurant and talk about whichever book was chosen by that night’s host. There were no restrictions on the books to be read. He quickly reached out to three close friends, who thought it was a good idea, and they quickly recruited six other guys for an initial total of ten. Over the next twenty years, twenty-five guys were in the group at one time or other. The group included attorneys, psychotherapists, educators, ministers, business executives, doctors, and journalists. Two members of the group were African Americans, one was a Palestinian American and one was Chinese American. Initially, most of the guys were in their fifties and sixties, but younger members were added. At this writing, the group continues, though meeting only by Zoom for the past six months.

Q: What was most interesting or surprising about writing your book?

A: Although I spent a good chunk of my professional life as a journalist/writer, ‘The Dayton Book Guys’ is my first book. I undertook it because I love the guys and the group, and I wanted to preserve a record for posterity. Once I started researching, the biggest surprise was the guys. I thought I knew them well but found there were layers to them I only discovered while writing the book. I also gained a new understanding and appreciation for the group dynamic, what made it special and why it has lasted for more than two decades. Of course, I also came to understand the writing process in ways I hadn’t.

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Q: What do you hope readers take away from reading the book?

A: I think it would appeal to people with a special love of books and reading and also to students of group behavior. Members of book groups probably will have a special affinity for the book. Although there are some compelling scenes in the book, it’s mostly about the guys, the books and the interaction of the two. I hope people who take the time to read it come to appreciate the guys and the unique intellectual ecosystem they created. For people of a certain age, they might have a special appreciation for how the guys — and the group — aged over time. An added bonus could be some good book recommendations.

Q: Do you have tips for selecting, thoughtfully reading, and then thoughtfully discussing books — especially if book group members have differing opinions.

A: One thing I learned from this group and I hope I was able to communicate in the book is the key to a good book discussion is not the book. It is the people doing the discussing. Over twenty-plus years we read more than 170 books, some well-known and acclaimed and some fairly obscure. We read fiction and nonfiction, history, biography, politics, science, sociology, economics and much more. The discussion I deemed to be the best of all those discussions — I used it as the opening for the chapter on discussions — barely touched on the book. Instead it was a deeply personal sharing of life stories by the guys. The book opened the door to that discussion but the reason it was special was the guys. I think the key to a good book group is picking the participants. Ideally, there should be diversity of experience and opinions combined with tolerance and openness. A good book discussion is partly about talking, but equally about listening.

Sharon Short writes historical mysteries under the pen name Jess Montgomery (www.jessmontgomeryauthor.com). Send her column ideas, book club news, or literary events at sharonshort1983@gmail.com.

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