A sampling of unusual book groups from across the country

Shedding its stodgy image as a pastime for bookworms with too much time on their hands, the book club is suddenly sexy. There are roughly 500,000 book clubs in the United States—nearly double the number in 1994—estimates Rachel Jacobsohn, author of The Reading Group Handbook, and there seems to be a group for virtually every possible interest, from self-help to science fiction. Here are a few that caught our attention:

—At MOSTLY, WE EAT, a 12-person group based in northwest New Jersey, members partake in sumptuous repasts that are loosely inspired by the books they’re discussing, says member Mary Bolster, a magazine editor. For Martha McPhee’s hippie-themed novel Bright Angel Time, participants nibbled on dishes containing mushrooms; for Michael Dorris’ A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (which features a multiethnic protagonist), the group feasted on “fusion foods” such as maize fritters with spicy tartar sauce. “Flavor always wins out over authenticity—we’re very aptly named,” says Bolster.

SECOND FOUNDATION members in Minneapolis analyze their favorite sci-fi authors and meet their heroes at local conventions. “Science-fiction fandom tends to be made up of social outcasts—people who were not popular in high school,” says founder Eric Heideman, a sci-fi columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “[Our members] tend to be tolerant because they know what it feels like to be excluded.” But not too tolerant. During a heated discussion about military science fiction, one former member asked Heideman, “Suppose I was to cross the room and start pounding you?”

—Female convicts are “sentenced” to a book group instead of jail at CHANGING LIVES THROUGH LITERATURE in Lowell, Mass. The women, caught in a cycle of crimes such as credit-card theft or prostitution, are “introduced to another way of thinking,” says group facilitator and professor Jean Trounstine. “Their way of seeing the world is insightful in a different way.” Sure is. One member’s former pimp attended the program’s graduation ceremony.

—Participants discuss books that “tend to affect social and political ideas,” says cofounder David Wellenbrock of the Stockton, Calif., group devoted to weighty tomes. With a reading list that boasts such titles as The Federalist Papers and Foundations of Jurisprudence, this club isn’t for the feebleminded—its members include a district attorney, doctor, college professor, and state senator. Downside? “With these people…nobody has enough airtime.”