June 18th, 2013

How to build a better book club

I am currently in a lovely book club, where every 6 weeks or so we gather to discuss a book we have all read, eat a delicious, vaguely thematic potluck, and draw the name of the next book-picker. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it’s added a lot to my life, but still the bad-book-club memories rear up. The time I was the only one to read the book, the time someone was mad at me for not choosing a better book, the time we read four super-depressing books in a row and then everyone quit.

Like people who have been in bad relationships and then find a good one, I’m much more aware of the loveliness than someone who had never known anything else. I would like to share with you some of the things I think make our book club awesome, in the hopes that you, too, can build a better book club.

1) Gather like-minded people and decide what you would like book club to do. Sounds silly–book club will allow you to chat about books with friends, won’t it–but trust me: different people have very different expectations of even this simple social/cultural exchange. Some people want book club to be a purely social occasion–the book is the excuse and it is only the subject of conversation for a little while, if at all. Some people want book club to take the place of undergraduate English classes, and help them understand serious works of literature. Some people want book club to keep them current on major best sellers and prize winners, so that they will be able to participate in the conversation when those books are mentioned. Some people haven’t read a book since university and are looking to get into reading as an adult for the first time.

These are all fine ways to construct a club, but note: not all compatible. If you’re forming the club, ask people what they’d like to do; if you’re thinking of joining, ask what they’ve read lately. This matters! The girl who was mad at me for picking a bad book had not read any other books that month. If book club was going to be her sole reading experience, she didn’t want it to suck. I, on the other hand, was picking books experimentally, just to see what they were like–if it sucked, oh well, I would just read something else. You see how we weren’t going to get along no matter what.

Our current club is the 250-pages-or-less book club. We all pick books according to our radically different tastes, and we all read open-mindedly whatever anyone else chose because it’s short and sweet. Even if it sucks, it’s over quickly, and we’ve discovered a lot of gems in genres I wouldn’t have otherwise touched. No one has a tonne of time to dedicate to the book club, but we are able to commit to 250 pages or less, and to trying something new. But that’s what works for us–not for everyone, for sure.

2) Appoint a leader. Not a boss–most book clubs aren’t too hierarchical–but an organizer, someone responsible and interested enough in the fate of the club that s/he will send out the emails, pick the dates, and gather RSVPs. It sounds like a minor role, but in “round-robin” clubs, where rotating book-pickers do the organizing and hosting, things can quickly descend into chaos or the club simply ends because no one ever sent that next email. You’d be surprised at how fragile a book-club is.

Our beloved leader actually takes things a step further and organizes space for our club AND a babysitter. This is really above and beyond, but it also really helps. Having a dedicated space for the meeting with the kids safe and nearby and NOT whining about how bored they are at bookclub is great for the parents among us. The whole thing tends to run like clockwork, which all members are grateful for.

You don’t have to have this super-hero level of engagement, but you do need a basic plan to keep the club going. If you want to pull off a round-robin structure, it might help to have certain “rules” in place–we meet the 3rd Tuesday of the month or BUST, for example. And perhaps meet in a public place, or at least have one as backup, so that a meeting doesn’t have to get cancelled if the host’s child gets the flu or similar.

3) Have fun! No matter how edifying they find it, no one will show up after a while if book club starts to feel like homework, just another responsibility that goes in the stack with work, housecleaning, cooking, and childcare. Bring good food–it doesn’t matter if it’s takeout, this is not a cook-off. Bring stuff that people like, and (if this sort of silliness floats your boat) is somehow related to the book. Our club also meets on the weekend, so people aren’t exhausted and running late from the workday. That’s probably not possible for every club, but it is nice if people come in a bit cheerful to start. Make sure members understand that disliking a book is just disliking a book, and shouldn’t be viewed as an attack on whoever chose it. People should feel comfortable making fun of characters, speculating about their sex lives, and talking about literary influences on the author, sometimes all at once. You don’t necessarily need to read on the level of analysis like in a university classroom–sometimes people just want to talk about how much they love a book, and that’s fine too.

We haven’t done many extra-curriculars as a club, but some fun ones are seeing the movie or theatrical version, seeing the author read, or visiting places that were settings in the book. Our one field trip was super-fun–I hope there are more. I’ve never been a bookclub that had a visiting author, but I have *been* that author. It was a bit awkward–I wasn’t sure if I should contribute to the potluck, not everyone liked the book and they felt bad about it–but overall a fun experience…

4) Accept when a book club is not for you, and find alternatives. A friend’s club was disintegrating because no one ever read the book, so it became a dinner-party club. For time-pressed people who just want to see their friends, that might be a really good solution. I also kind of like the idea of a “book-recommendation club” for people who like to read but don’t like to be given orders what to read. You get together and all talk about the books you’ve read in the last month, and which of those you’d recommend. Then maybe the next month, someone has taken one of your recommendations and you can talk about what you both think. That’s a little lower-pressure, but you still get your book-jollies in.

It’s amazing how something so utterly unnecessary has taken the world by storm–trust me when I say I’m not the only one who has experienced book-club angst. But if you get it right, book-clubs can be so fun. I hope you find, or build, a good one!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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