Coon Rapids resident Jim Bofenkamp has belonged to several book clubs over the years. Often, he wished they were more challenging.
"If I'm going to spend time and make the effort to read the book, I want to make sure that I'm getting something out of it," he said.
That desire to dig deeper motivated him to start a club of his own: the Masterpiece Book Club, launched in September 2011.
The club, which tackles a literary masterpiece each month, has its next meeting on Oct. 9 at the Coon Rapids Senior Center.
Besides a small group of regulars, other people subscribe to related e-mails that Bofenkamp sends out periodically. This includes a detailed wrap-up of the group's discussions, with additional thoughts, research and links. That alone can range from 15 to 20 pages, he said.
"My intent is that it's part book club and part adult learning opportunity," said Bofenkamp, a real estate agent and former English teacher.
Before starting the club, Bofenkamp consumed 60 books -- in addition to his regular reading -- over a span of several years to try to get a grasp on the finest literature out there, he said.
Based on his research, the club began with "All the King's Men," by Robert Penn Warren, and several others among Bofenkamp's favorites. Since then, the club has shifted to a historical fiction theme. Each volume speaks to a significant piece of history over a 3,000-year period, from the Trojan War to the U.S. Civil War.
This month, the club will discuss "Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles," a novel by Margaret George about Mary Stuart, who became queen of Scots in 1542, when she was an infant.
For next year, club members are voting on titles of their choosing. After that, the yearly lineup will alternate between Bofenkamp's and the club's picks.
Although he has left the term "masterpiece" undefined, for him personally, a book has to wow him. He especially loves a "dynamite ending."
Already, Bofenkamp is choosing books by Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and William Faulkner for the future.
A strong leader
Gwen Reiter, a retired music teacher from Anoka, one of the book club's earliest members, found out about it through the senior center's newsletter.
The way the club works is similar to a college class, something that she likes.
She prepares for the meetings by taking notes on the book and watching for themes. "I try to absorb what I'm reading," she said. "I want to be able to offer something to others."
Even when it's a book she doesn't like, like Gore Vidal's "Creation," which she criticized as too broad, "I find it very satisfying," she said.
She attributes that to Bofenkamp's leadership abilities. "Jim is an excellent facilitator," she said. "He does very well drawing people out and having them participate."
Another member, Kathryne Montoya, a retired Spanish teacher from Coon Rapids, echoed that: "He has genuine passion. It's just real. It's really impressive."
Many of the club's books are ones she wouldn't have picked up on her own. It has turned out to be a good thing. "I'm eating them up," she said. "I can't wait to read my book."
Her favorite is "The Golden Warrior," by Hope Muntz, about the Norman conquest in England. The book covers the period from 1051 to 1066. "I liked the style and the story," she said. "It was fascinating."
The club's meetings run two hours, but "we always end up short of time," she said. "We could go on quite a bit longer."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.