Inventive book talks at a Connecticut library lead readers to walks and more

MIDDLETOWN — It’s not uncommon to see people walking in pairs or threes on a lovely summer day as they enjoy lunchtime together downtown.

In Middletown, those out and about may come upon a half-dozen people strolling along at an easy pace, talking and laughing. They share opinions, ask questions, make new acquaintances, and share their views of the world — all prompted by a well-known title with a universal theme.

The brainchild of librarian Christy Billings, these outings, Book Talk With a Walk, are held Mondays from noon to 1:30 p.m., and depart the Russell Library at 123 Broad St. as group members make their way to the Connecticut River at Harbor Park — about two miles round trip.

“On the way, people are having great conversations about what they’re reading, about life in general. It’s just a great way to begin these face-to-face connections that don’t happen so often anymore,” said Billings, who on the last outing, saw the train rumble over the rusty trestle that spans the river with the Arrigoni Bridge in the background.

She’d never seen it before.

“That’s what you really need to do: have a place that’s not so formal as the library. Christie, I like to say, has her fingers on the pulse of Middletown. She’s really keyed in,” said Community Services Librarian Rolande Duprey.

Participants stop at the gazebo near the pedestrian bridge and Billings hands out index cards with prompts that stimulate thought and sharing.

On Monday, the subject was “Tuesdays With Morrie” by Mitch Albom, the wildly popular 1997 book that sold 12 million copies. It’s the tale of 37-year-old Albom, a newspaper man, who reconnects with his college professor. They strike up a deep friendship over 14 weeks made all the more poignant by the fact Morrie Schwartz is in his 70s and is dying.

The tagline for the talk with a walk is “Come see what you’ll hear.”

Reading often is a solitary practice, a concept Russell Library staff want to turn on its head.

“It’s a face to face you might not have had with books,” Billings said.

“He gets some of the difficult conversations started,” she said of Albom. “I like Morrie. He’s really genuine. He says, ‘if you don’t like your culture, don’t follow it.’ Most people who are dying don’t talk about it. He not only put himself out there, he was pretty honest about the process.”

This type of outreach aligns with a national trend in which literary and arts-related programming are offered after hours, and at locations in the community where people already congregate,” Duprey said.

In fact, Billings held a combination beer tasting and book talking night earlier this month.

The second Books and Brews was held Aug. 9 at Stubborn Brewery at the R.M. Keating Historical Enterprise Park on Johnson Street. The next Books and Brews Sept. 13 will explore “Behold the Dreamers,” by Imbolo Mbue. The get-together takes place the second Thursday of the month at 6 p.m.

The fact that libations are conducive to conversation was not lost on a soul who attended.

July’s theme was “reading takes you everywhere” so Billings picked “Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner to read.

“It’s happiness around the world and you’re going to be happy at the brewery,” Billings said. Weiner even tweeted that he loved the idea, something that thrilled her. “It was so cool to connect. Back in the day, you couldn’t do this at all.”

“The trend with libraries is responding to what the community needs. That’s the overarching theme. Under that is, well, if they’re not going to come to us” … (we join them), Duprey said. Many of these programs take place after hours.

“People like to stay out at night and they’re going to be at pubs, restaurants or different places. It’s taking the library to the people. This is an adult outreach. It’s not about bookmobiles or those kinds of things. This is really about getting people to talk about books and understand there’s a lot of books out there,” Duprey said.

Ann Smith, who is responsible for programming and community engagement at the library, appreciated the honesty of both characters in Albom’s book.

Her discussion card said: “Do you think Mitch would have listened if Morrie hadn’t been dying? Does impending death automatically make one’s voice able to penetrate where it couldn’t before?

“It’s a real gift to be honest with your friends. A true friend would not say something that could be unpleasant or unkind if you didn’t know it came from the heart,” she said.

“I think the imminence of death is a door that gives people permission to talk,” Smith said.

“When you get down to basics, that strips away a lot of this. That’s why this book works so well,” Billings said.

Only she had recently read “Morrie.”

“Even if you haven’t read the book, everybody has something to contribute because you have an opinion about race relations or social justice or whatever the book’s theme was: everybody’s got something to offer, whether it’s related to the book or not,” Smith said.

Barbara Collins is a regular on the walks who takes part for the exercise: “I walk the dog, but mine likes to stop and sniff a lot,” she said of her daily routine.

On Monday, she shared a story with the group about a time when she was in her 40s and took a routine stress test at the doctor’s office.

“I walked maybe 90 seconds and they told me to get off. They rushed me to the emergency room.”

Turns out, she had a 90 percent blockage in her heart. She had never thought about dying before that, Collins said.

Book talks with a walk meets Mondays from noon to 1 p.m. weather permitting

September’s theme is “Small Books with Lots to Say.” Upcoming sessions include Sept. 10, “Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake” by Anna Quindlen; Sept. 17, “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates,” and Sept. 24, “Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain.

For information, visit