Long after staffers had left for the day on Dec. 11, the teachers' lounge at Northdale Middle School in Coon Rapids was filled with lively discussion.

The Northdale Book Club's monthly meeting centered on the title, "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home," by Rhoda Janzen.

The nearly 20 people attending touched on everything from the author's writing style, which one person called "flippant," to the book's religious themes. Opinions about the book ran the gamut.

All the while, the group munched on holiday treats, giving the meeting a homey, informal feel.

Ham Lake resident Larry Steifer, a retired computer programmer and a relative newcomer to the group, said, "I was very interested in her story," especially concerning the Mennonites, a group he said he doesn't know much about.

Although the book leaves a lot of questions unanswered, "There was a lot of insight from some of the other club members," he said.

It's the intellectual and social aspects of the club, which started in 1982, that keeps many of its 32 members coming back.

Susan Suchy, a Ramsey resident who works with adults with developmental disabilities, said that, a handful of years in, she still looks forward to the meetings.

She attributes that to its founder, Audrey Grelling, who has a fun yet organized leadership style, she said.

With Grelling at the helm, the meetings are "engaging, lively and thought-provoking," she said.

The few occasions in Suchy's time that Grelling missed a meeting, "her absence was very noticeable," she said.

An open, outgoing group

Grelling, who lives in Coon Rapids, started the group when her daughter, Karin Johnson, attended the school in the early 1980s.

The club, which is offered through the Anoka-Hennepin School District's community education program, is open to anyone with a $15 annual facility fee, is largely composed of women -- some members like to joke that there's always just one "token male."

The club does a "casual review of books," which the group selects through a vote.

"You end up reading lots of stuff you never would've looked at," Grelling said, adding that she normally reads mysteries.

Getting outside of one's comfort zone is good, she said, even though it sometimes leads to mixed results. For example, when the club read "The Dancing Wu Li Masters," which was supposed to be a layman's guide to physics, "Nobody was able to get through it."

It's enlightening, she said, quoting a book club member: "It's almost as if you have the opportunity to live a lot of different lives, to see things from the point of view of the characters."

So many ideas bubble up during meetings that wouldn't otherwise. "The group is greater than the individual," she said.

Grelling, who has been a member of one book club or another for nearly 50 years, appreciates that the Northdale group is "open, outgoing, willing to accept most anything, ready for discussions, and fun to be with."

Bonding through books

For Grelling, book clubs are also a source of friendship.

Grelling still keeps in touch with original members of a club she helped start in Illinois in the 1960s called the Glenview Book Club. Several years ago the group, which has more of a scholarly bent, held a reunion that drew as many as 50 people from around the country.

She said she was unsure of what the recipe is for that kind of longevity, but noted: "The people are interested in doing it, in talking and expressing their own opinions."

Like Grelling, Blaine resident Melanie Gust, a 30-year veteran of the Northdale group, has belonged to a number of book clubs.

"Reading is my only vice," she said, adding that it can be embarrassing. "Instead of doing what I should be doing, like laundry or the dishes, I am with book."

Part of the fun of the club, which provides structure and deadlines for her book addiction, are the unique perspectives that everyone brings to the discussion.

She likened the club to a class in which everyone has the same assignment, but "you bring to it your filters, your life."

Often, the conversation veers off into personal topics. "You start talking about your life," she said. And that helps to strengthen the bond with one another and leads to greater understanding of books.

Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.