Book club for men mixes beer, pizza and da Vinci

Photo by Chea Waters Evans
Books on Tap, the Pierson Library’s book club for men, meets monthly at La Villa Italian restaurant. The guys read and talked about Walter Isaacson’s biography, “Leonardo da Vinci” for September.

By CHEA WATERS EVANS

There are different kinds of book clubs: The kind where no one reads the book and everyone drinks a lot of wine; or the kind where paperbacks are riddled with Post-It note discussion questions and members passionately debate literary theory.

Shelburne’s Books on Tap, a men’s book club coordinated through the Pierson Library, is a little bit of both of those, with a good meal and good humor enjoyed throughout.

Run by volunteer Andrew Everett, the book club meets once a month (only twice during the summer) at the Italian restaurant La Villa on Shelburne Road.

The venue was particularly appropriate this past month, when 16 men met to discuss Walter Isaacson’s exhaustive biography, “Leonardo  da Vinci.” The brick-colored walls in the back room at La Villa are hung with prints of maps of Italy. A decorative wine glass full of corks sits on a bookshelf.

Much like the book subject himself, the men who attend the book club have wide-ranging interests and skills, including a musician, a philosophy professor, two stay-at-home fathers, a rheumatologist, a museum director, and a retired corrections officer.

The club’s email list has 40-50 names and generally 10 to 15 men regularly attend, Everett said. A show of hands revealed that almost everyone attending last week finished the book, although there was some ribbing about certain members listening to the audiobook on 2.5x speed in order to finish. The group chooses books by online poll from member suggestions.

La Villa owner Jill Spell said that frequently some men arrive a couple hours early before the book club’s 7:30 p.m. start time to have a drink and finish reading in one of the bar’s booths.

When book club begins, the group orders drinks and once pizzas are delivered, the double doors to the main dining room are closed.

Discussion last week veered from the practical to the cerebral, sometimes in one comment. Shelburne resident Eric Olsen, a graphic designer and musician in the band Swale, half-joked at the beginning, “Can we never read something this heavy again?”

Some took it as referring to the dense content, but he clarified – it was physically a big book.

The club is open to any men who would like to join – several members arrived from surrounding towns last week.

The humor in the room veered from jokes about Machiavelli and Jay Gatsby to more testosterone-based barbs. The guys’ attire ranged from running sneakers and sport shorts to one shirt and tie. Some men spoke a lot; others barely chimed in. But all engaged in the topic of the book’s subject – an actual Renaissance Man.

The discussion turned many times to the concept of genius.

Issacson, who has also written extensive biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger, placed da Vinci into the category of prophetic genius, a designation with which some in the group struggled.

The conversation’s tone was fondly adversarial at times. The group touched on topics debated for centuries: Does an artist’s personal life lend meaning to his work, or does that work stand alone? Were the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows wiped off by accident?

Other questions were more modern: How can a man be an effective and empathetic parent in a rapidly changing world? What’s the different between a tunic and a tutu? What would da Vinci have made of his life if he were around today and owned a Playstation?

And the book itself? Some found it tedious; some skimmed the art-history-class passages; some found the detailed examination of da Vinci’s notebooks fascinating.

Club member Greg Warrington is a professor and assistant chair of the University of Vermont’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. He took issue with the meaning of man as genius in general. He did concede, however, to much laughter in the room, that as far as the author Isaacson is concerned, “It’s his book. He can write whatever he wants.”

Like any good book, the discussion wound down and tied together the themes of the night and hinted at what’s to come.

Books on Tap meets next month to discuss the novel “There There” by Tommy Orange.

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