The Colgate Scene
|By Mia Bongiovanni '90|
New York City-area alumnae gathered at the Williams Club in June for a discussion of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead with Margaret Maurer, William Henry Crawshaw Professor of literature (center). Maurer's popular annual book club, sponsored by the Women's Advisory Committee, includes five other cities: Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. [Photos by Rob Bennett]
June has come to have a routine for me over the past several years: a last-minute dash to the bookstore, a few late-night sessions of speed-reading, and cramming in those last few paragraphs as I rush to be on time for Professor Maurer. I arrive with a few other late-comers, and we smile in relief that we are not alone in our tardiness.
"Did you finish?" I ask with anxiety on my face.
"I only got halfway through," the woman next to me confesses.
"Oh, thank God I'm not the only one," chimes in a third.
We share a laugh. You'd think we'd been out carousing all night instead of studiously finishing our assignment. But our carousing consists of office deadlines, board meetings, and sick kids. We're no longer enrolled students, but alumnae racing to the annual Women's Advisory Committee book group led by longtime Colgate English professor Margaret Maurer in New York City. For a precious few hours every June, we clutch our books more dearly than our Blackberries.
The Women's Advisory Committee, which has members nationwide, sponsors events for volunteering, career networking, student mentoring, and fundraising. Members have started entrepreneur groups, informal book clubs, and even a babysitting network. We support each other's work and help each other land jobs. It is a diverse yet highly connected group of women who value the professional, social, and intellectual outlet that the group provides -- such as Margaret Maurer's annual book tour, which also includes stops in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
This year, the book of choice was Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. Margaret had warned me before our discussion got underway that participants at another city's event were very vocal in their dislike for the book. We both loved it, so we couldn't wait to hear what our companions for the evening would have to say.
I came to the group many years ago when a friend invited me to the first gathering. I'd had very little involvement with Colgate since graduation. I was focused on my career and new life, and most social alumni events quite honestly held little interest for me. But this sounded different. When my friend told me that Professor Margaret Maurer was leading the discussion, I was hooked. Poor Shakespeare had been pushed aside to make room for budgets and production schedules in my life. I was eager to be a student again.
I attended with curiosity, and left in amazement. I encountered an interesting and accomplished group of women who like me, valued the chance to step into a setting outside their normal circle and engage in an intellectual discussion that had absolutely nothing to do with their day jobs. It's an interesting break for Margaret as a professor, as well -- a chance to read something she wouldn't encounter in her Renaissance work. That year we read The English Patient, and have stuck mostly with contemporary authors in subsequent years.
At that particular meeting, opinions were offered timidly and forcefully, and the conversation flowed for hours. We stayed on to hear news from campus. Margaret filled us in on all of the new initiatives being undertaken, and we offered our feedback. I heard about a school that had changed dramatically in the years since I left. I was impressed. And grateful for the chance to meet an engaged and interesting group of people who were eager to learn from each other and stay connected.
My involvement grew, and I have since helped organize the book choice committee. We have a lively e-mail debate about various authors and are not afraid to say when we hate something. I always appreciate the candor -- and it continues into the book group discussion itself. The honesty and directness of people's reactions always lead to a much deeper and thoughtful discussion.
This year, as we delve into Gilead, the responses are varied and clearly informed by each woman's own personal experience. One speaks of how her religious background, similar to that of Robinson's, informed her reading. Another describes the impressions the book left on her as she prepared for Father's Day (the book focuses on fathers and sons). Others talk about the structure and prose, the beauty and spareness of the language. We talk and talk. No one wants the discussion to end.
As I sit among my peers with a great book in hand, listening to a familar and admired voice, I realize that my time at Colgate was just the beginning of the relationship. Our four years on campus should not be the main highlight, but rather the kick-start to lifelong interaction and learning.
Chatting before and afterwards, the conversation focuses on our current lives. We don't reminisce, but Colgate is very much present. I ask a number of women why the book group is so important to them, as it is to me. Interestingly enough, our answers are all very similar, even though our student experiences on campus were extremely different. The chance to re-connect with a professor is the main reason. Some admit they don't typically attend book groups, but wouldn't miss the chance to sit with Margaret. I think it's that chance to momentarily be a student again, part of a community that shares the desire to keep learning no matter how busy and focused life becomes. You can switch gears and think creatively -- no right or wrong answers, no decisions required. In our adult lives, we don't often get that opportunity.
The closing line of Gilead quotes King Lear. It seemed fitting, as we sat chatting with Margaret, that there be at least one reference to Shakespeare. When I got home that night, I updated my to-do list. Reading King Lear now sits at the top. As with many of the items, it hasn't been checked off yet, but I'm nonetheless grateful I was prompted to put it there.
Bongiovanni, who majored in English while at Colgate, is director of media and presentations with the Metropolitan Opera.
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