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The Athenaeum aims for the under-50 crowd

The Literary Scene
By MATTHEW LAWRENCE  |  October 8, 2014


Like suspects in a vintage crime novel, 16 men and women arrived at the Providence Athenaeum on October 3. They convened in a creaky upstairs room filled with art books and busts of famous writers. Mostly strangers to one another, members of the collective sat on folding chairs, introducing themselves while eating apricot pastries and sipping white Bordeaux. Collectively they call themselves the Contemporaries, and this was the first meeting of their new reading group. For spatial reasons — the Art Room overlooking the library’s main floor isn’t all that big — the reading group was limited to 20, and by the time the meeting began 19 of those 20 slots were already claimed.

The reading group is led by Holly Gaboriault, an artist and designer who also serves on the Athenaeum’s board. And as the group members introduced themselves, Gaboriault recounted her one previous book club experience, where the organizer selected titles based on the book covers and handmade chocolates were discussed with great fervor while the assigned reading was mostly ignored.

Selection for the Contemporaries reading group is a lot more democratic. Members came prepared with three books they wanted to be considered. Titles, mainly contemporary fiction and memoir, were written on slips of paper, dropped in a paper bag, and selected randomly by Gaboriault. First up: a Bill Bryson memoir. Most of the group was familiar with the author’s name although few had actually read any of his work before. A good choice for a book club.

The reading group is just one faction of the Contemporaries, the Athenaeum’s new initiative for young Rhode Islanders (“young” is a relative term, since the group is open to anyone under the age of 50). “This group is being launched in the hopes of broadening the Athenaeum base of support amongst its younger constituents in addition to serving as a cultural connector among other younger members of the Providence community and Rhode Island’s rich cultural scene,” read an email from the library last month. The group also promises social events and tours of local businesses and arts organizations, most of which are still being planned.

Emily Kugler was one of the first people to sign up for the Contemporaries. The 35-year-old relocated to Providence five years ago but due to work-related travel she has only considered herself a full-time resident for about two years. Kugler became an Athenaeum member last year and promptly started volunteering at the library’s popular Friday night salons, which routinely draw more than 100 guests. (The series is on hiatus for the fall, but the most recent season included talks on topics including Arctic exploration, the history of paper dolls, and a surprisingly popular multi-part series on the first giraffe to set foot in Paris in 1827.)

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