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Tales as Old as Time

The Masterpiece Book Club at Chicago Public Library’s Vodak–East Side branch hosted a Miss Fisher–themed holiday party in 2015. Photo: Nancy Devlin
The Masterpiece Book Club at Chicago Public Library’s Vodak–East Side branch hosted a Miss Fisher–themed holiday party in 2015. Photo: Nancy Devlin

Sheri Czulno, head library clerk at Chicago Public Library (CPL)’s Vodak–East Side branch, says she doesn’t consider herself much of a reader—but when she was asked to take over the branch’s Masterpiece Book Club in 2012, she knew she had to fulfill Great Expectations.

For every meeting, Czulno would dress up as a character from books the club was reading and shows it was watching. For instance, when the group read the stories of G. K. Chesterton, she wore the black cape, hat, and glasses of Father Brown, the character who lent his name to the Masterpiece show.

“It wasn’t just about having a successful book club,” Czulno says. “It was more about bringing those stories to life—and engaging our participants to do the same.”

Masterpiece, the longest-running prime-time drama series on television, marks its 50th anniversary this January. The PBS-produced anthology is known for its adaptations of classic literary works (Little Women, Les Misérables) as well as its original programming (Downton Abbey). Celebrating the series’ ties to literature, libraries across the country have formed book clubs centered on watching the historical dramas and reading the source books in tandem, offering patrons a twofold opportunity to escape to a different world.

All clubs great and small

Czulno says that before COVID-19 struck, her Masterpiece club meetings attracted 25 people regularly. She remembers a Phryne Fisher–themed holiday party (based on Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries—a PBS show, if not a Masterpiece selection) in which one member brought in a cake with the lead actor’s photo and a book cover on it, and another wrote and performed an original song based on the series. “They get really competitive with what they bring into the club,” Czulno says.

Sharon Shaloo, executive director at Massachusetts Center of the Book—which partnered with more than 30 libraries in the state last year for a virtual read-along of Jane Austen’s incomplete novel Sanditon (adapted into a Masterpiece show that aired in 2020)—says the ability to read a book and watch its series at the same time offers an enriching experience. Masterpiece is special, she says, because the shows’ costume design, set pieces, and actors are dedicated to maintaining the novels’ accuracy—which allows audiences to fully immerse themselves in a new setting.

“You can trust [Masterpiece’s] interpretation, that they have integrity,” Shaloo says.

Bridgeport (W. Va.) Public Library (BPL) and Montgomery County (Tex.) Memorial Library System’s R. B. Tullis branch have hosted Masterpiece book clubs in recent years, taking on such shows as Poldark, Endeavour, and The Durrells in Corfu. Sharon Saye, director of BPL, says her library’s club, Tea and Talk, was very popular before the pandemic hit.

Some libraries are not letting building shutdowns cancel their meetups. CPL Librarian Janette Kopacz, who oversees the system’s Masterpiece clubs, says patrons are still convening through Zoom. The ages of members usually range from 60 to 80 years old, so their access to technology differs. “Not everyone has a computer at home,” she says, “but we’ve found that most people still have a landline. So we help [them] phone in to the meetings.”

Reaching new audiences

As a kid, Thomas Cummiskey, senior services and outreach librarian at Plymouth (Mass.) Public Library (PPL), remembers gathering around the television with his family every Sunday night to watch a new episode of Masterpiece. Cummiskey, who led the Sanditon read-along at his library in 2020, says there’s still something unique about the PBS production. He remembers a grandmother and granddaughter who attended the Sanditon discussions: “It was really sweet to see them bonding over the story, and exciting to get to have that multigenerational component,” he says.

Cyrisse Jaffee, former associate manager of editorial content at PBS affiliate GBH (formerly WGBH) in Boston, which produced Sanditon, says the audience has broadened over the years—especially with the introduction of streaming services. According to GBH, the streaming audience for Masterpiece is younger than its broadcast audience, with 38% under the age of 55.

In its early years, “Masterpiece attracted middle-aged and older women,” Jaffee says, “but with the upsurge of interest in [Jane] Austen and shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock, the audience has skewed younger and younger.”

Masterpiece has garnered a large, passionate following for whom reading the book is just as fun as watching a show that immortalizes it. Jaffee says the series remains popular because the literary works that get adapted are multidimensional. “The reason people read them over and over again is the timeliness and timelessness of the dilemmas the characters face, the morality that they grapple with,” Jaffee says.

Though GBH no longer sends official marketing materials to Masterpiece book clubs because of costs, Gay Mohrbacher, GBH senior project manager, points out that book clubs across the country have kept the love for the production alive on their own. Mohrbacher says it’s largely because of the librarians and staffers leading the clubs.

“It’s fabulous,” she says. “[Librarians] know which titles are going to resonate in their community.”

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