Have you always intended to read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Henry David Thoreau’s Walden — but never had the time? Maybe it's time you started a green book club.
In 1999, longtime birder, naturalist and Nature Conservancy trustee Wendy J. Paulson decided to get serious about all those “want to read” conservation books that had been sitting on her shelf.
So Paulson — who also chairs the international conservation group RARE — and Conservancy trustees Katie Dolan and Ginny Carter invited a carefully chosen group of friends to start a different kind of book club. Each month, they would read and discuss a book about conservation — beginning with classics like Thoreau's Walden and Carson’s seminal work about the environmental effects of pesticides.
The club recently celebrated its 10th anniversary — and the original members have read a whopping 110 books. Nature.org talked to Paulson about how a "green" book club works, which books to start one with…and how to keep it going.
Nature.org: Being part of a failed book club is practically a right of passage for avid readers. Why do you think this group is still going?
Wendy Paulson: We have such a congenial group. All of us are interested in conservation and/or birding. We bird together. Sometimes we travel together. There’s a chemistry: We are all good friends and everyone reads the books. It’s a disciplined group.
Nature.org: You also have some well-defined logistics, don't you?
Wendy Paulson: Yes. We meet the first Tuesday of the month for lunch. Usually we spend about an hour and a half together. We purposely don’t gather at dinnertime, because then the meeting can spread out for hours and it’s too easy to drift off topic. And we rarely meet at someone’s house, because then it’s a burden for the host. We also keep a list of books that we plan to read next, so we know what’s coming.
Nature.org: Do you ever get into disagreements about what you’ve read or the politics involved?
Wendy Paulson: We sometimes disagree about the style or perspective of the writer, but I’d characterize it as constructive disagreement. We’re all trying to be better conservationists, either professionally or as volunteers. And this book group is hugely helpful to all of us. The reading helps my work and gives me great talking points. Plus, we tend not to read what I call “edgy” conservation. We try to stay focused on the book as much as possible. Also, the members of the group enjoy one another. That chemistry is critical.
Nature.org: What kinds of books do you read?
Wendy Paulson: We read nonfiction with a conservation focus. And within that, we read environmental classics like Silent Spring, ecological overviews, books about special locations, urban nature, species, early travels, modern expeditions. Also, autobiography and essays. We did read one fiction book, The Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth, but it is based largely in fact.
Nature.org: Do you find conservation books depressing? Discussions of the environment can be pretty grim.
Wendy Paulson: We’re all sort of can-do people. We’re looking for solutions and constructive thinking. We choose books by people who have good ideas — books that are well written, less technical. We want to be inspired. And we like to have fun, like reading Marie Winn’s Red-Tails in Love and Central Park in the Dark.
Nature.org: After 110 books, you must have some pet peeves about the genre.
Wendy Paulson: Well, we want to read about the topic, not so much about the author. There are some books where the author is too much in the way. On the other hand, you have great books like Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World. Fabulous. We’re looking for good writing and for the author to keep himself or herself in the background unless, of course, it’s an autobiography.
Nature.org: What’s your favorite of the 110?
Wendy Paulson: I knew you were going to ask me this. I have to say A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. We still use that as the yardstick by which we measure every other book. It’s the most articulate case for conservation. It’s lyrical, concise and persuasive. Plus it has a wonderful balance: You get the inspiration of pure nature in the almanac and then rational argument in the essays.
Nature.org: What are your tips for someone who wants to start a book club like this?
Wendy Paulson: Here are my top tips: