No one can quite remember exactly how the Thalians Book Club got its start 63 years ago.
“The six founding members were learned, educated women, and they wanted to discuss books together. Starting a book club, that was the thing to do at the time," said Elaine Ellis, vice president of the Thalians. "That’s about all I know about it."
As for the name these learned women chose, Ellis said the founders "reminded me of true academics. Thalia is the muse of comedy and idyllic poetry from Greek mythology — one of the three graces or charities. They must have seen this as a good fit for a book club!"
Ellis, who joined women-only club in 1972, spent a few minutes before the group's annual spring picnic looking through Thalians' memorabilia, including invitations to anniversary events, newspaper articles, photographs and rosters beginning with the club’s founding in 1956.
All of the original Thalians members are now deceased, although records show one of the charter members was Mary Webb, widow of Jesse Webb Jr., who served as mayor of Baton Rouge from 1953 until his death in a 1956 plane crash.
Unlike a traditional book club, the 25 members of the Thalians don’t all read the same book at the same time.
“We tried that once and it was a disaster,” said Wanda Barber, a member since the 1970s.
Instead, twice a year, each member lends the club a recently published book for other members to check out of the club's library. In presenting the book, the member gives a three-minute review of it.
“The (club's) former librarian used to have a gong, and she’d hit it when the three minutes was up,” member Fran Adcock said. “Some of us don’t know when to stop talking.”
The books are kept in the club’s library for three years before being returned to their owners.
At five other meetings during the year — the club doesn't meet in the summer — local authors are invited to give presentations. Recent speakers have included René Uzee, author of "Yellow Jack," and Chip Landry, sexton at St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
As vice president, Ellis is in charge of programming. Finding speakers, she said, is never a problem.
“Librarians are very helpful. I can usually fill all the slots at the beginning of the year,” she said.
Though members have different preferences, they all share an affection for Southern writers such as John Grisham.
“We like books about our area,” Ellis said. “A book about Alaska, that’s not going to really speak to us.”
After so many years together, members know who they share reading preferences with and gravitate toward their recommendations.
In addition to local interest books, Ellis likes history and historical fiction.
“I’ve never read a book recommended by the group that I didn’t enjoy,” she said.
The club is limited to 30 members but currently only has 25.
“There was a waiting list when I wanted to join,” said Jackie Lewis, a member since 2015. “And then when I finally joined, members started dying, and I thought maybe I was bad luck.”
With the club’s membership aging and moving into condos or retirement homes, finding a place to hold meetings is a challenge, club President Catherine White said.
“As long as we don’t meet in a funeral home," she said, laughing. "That’s where I draw the line.”
Meeting in a library has never been appealing because of the social aspect of the club, White said.
“It’s the South," she said. "We don’t want to have a meeting if we can’t have cookies."