Tips for starting a book club?
May 18, 2006 4:23 PM   Subscribe

How do we start and run a successful book club?

I'd like suggestions and tips from people who have started their own or attended one for a long time. What makes it work, how do you decide what to read, and do you have a leader? Do you prefer food to be involved? Does alcohol help or hinder? Should we have it at member's homes, at a comfortable, quiet coffeehouse, or somewhere else? What kind of books stimulate discussion, and what kind bring out people's inner snob? (Joyce, anyone?)
posted by Mr. Gunn to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've belonged to two book clubs - both of which lasted for a long time - one for 20 years, the other for 10.

One, we met at peoples' homes - and it was by invitation only. Food was provided. Reading the book was mandatory. We had a "genre schedule" to work with. We alternated popular fiction, non-fiction, classical fiction, science fiction, poets and poetry, and so on. Discussion was fairly regimented. The person who hosted the meeting was the discussion leader.

The second book club met at a coffee house. We met through a book store. We became very close friends - which actually did not work out nearly as well. As time went on, fewer and fewer people actually read the books. We spent more of our time just talking.

Some regimentation is really necessary to keep it going. People should feel obligated to read the book - that was the single hardest thing to get them to do.
posted by clarkstonian at 4:49 PM on May 18, 2006

I'm a lone reader, so no personal tips, but there are some good books out there about running a book club. This one routinely gets a lot of praise. Here's another, although I don't know as much about it.
posted by mediareport at 8:35 PM on May 18, 2006

The Vancouver Public Library has a city-wide book club and supports the development of clubs. As a result, they have a list of resources on their book club site.
posted by acoutu at 8:38 PM on May 18, 2006

As clarkstonian pointed out, the single hardest thing to do is to be sure everyone reads the damn book. Structuring the discussion so that each member is asked pointed questions about the book will help to ensure this -- nobody wants to be singled out and embarrassed.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:59 PM on May 18, 2006

My book group is definitely more like a social club than a book group, although it's the idea of reading and discussing the book that brings us together. The group is almost 9 years old, I've been in it for 8 years. Our meetings run 2 hours about every 6 weeks with the following agenda:

- greet everyone and start eating, catch up on everyone
- pick the next book for discussion and the next meeting date
- discuss the previous book

The group is very informal, and finishing the book isn't necessary or a sign of shame. The host usually tries to make food in the theme of the most recent book, and the host also provides the stack of books for choosing from for the next meeting. Most meetings are at someone's house (we rotate through the group on a volunteer basis), with the summer meetings at a nearby park. The park meetings require everyone to bring food and book to share. There's rarely alcohol involved, but it's not out of the question (we meet on Sunday afternoons at 1pm). There's a core of about 8-10 members that make it to more meetings than don't, with about 5 more in the periphery.

There's no real leader in our group, although it is named for the maiden name of one member. Meeting at someone's house or the park makes it fun for me, as does seeing the food that people make inspired by the book. I like knowing that I won't be criticized for not finishing the book. Showing up to the meeting is the most important thing for us, and the discussion is always good even if one hasn't finished reading. We all have busy lives and people are understanding. There's almost always a critical mass of people that have read the book to keep the discussion going.

We don't read extra difficult stuff (like Joyce), but we don't read very fluffy stuff either. Lots of our books have ended up on the Oprah list, but we usually seemed to read them before Oprah talked about them. I get exposed to books that I'd never read or find on my own. Our next book is Hemingway, who I recall _hating_ in high school, I'm curious to see how I'll react to his writing now.
posted by dr. fresh at 9:43 PM on May 18, 2006

The book club I'm in started about a year ago. Most months, there will be at least one person who doesn't read the book. Often it will be the case that people start the book, decide they don't like it, and stop reading. It depends on what you're looking for - personally, I'm happy enough with just the social aspects of it.
posted by antifuse at 3:39 AM on May 19, 2006

I stopped attending the only book club I ever joined because one member was really really into it, to the point of dominating the discussion and intimidating other members. The intimidation was probably unintentional, but the result was that other members became more cautious about sharing their thoughts because this person would analyze everything like a college lit professor. It stopped being fun, and became more like homework.

So my advice is: For the first round of comments, limit each person's time to speak to a minute or two, require everyone to contribute at least one thought, and require that everyone else stay silent until it is their turn. Once everyone present has at least had the chance to speak once, then open the floor to more general discussion.

Another group I am aware of, but have not joined, publishes their reading list as early as possible, along with recommendations on where to buy or borrow the books, for example "the library currently has X number of copies, there are Y copies on for $Z and Borders can order it for $XX". I think that is useful to help members prepare in advance, although this group tends to read more obscure books, so it may not be necessary for a group that reads more popular works.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:46 AM on May 19, 2006

Good point on the availability of books. Our book group aims to read stuff that is already out in trade paperback and relatively easy to find. Some of us are mostly library borrowers, but others like to buy the books and don't want to get hardbacks. We keep a website of what books we've read and an email goes out soon after the latest meeting informing everyone on what the next book and meeting place/date will be.
posted by dr. fresh at 8:17 AM on May 19, 2006

I've got what I realize now is a kind of side business running bookgroups. It started as an adjunct to my work at a local independent bookstore, and then when I left there I continued it and started to charge people for the groups (well, the store did really, and they give me some of the money). Recently, by word of mouth, I was hired by a long-established bookgroup to help them read and talk about Proust's In Search of Lost Time. So, I have some observations and some caveats about what works and what doesn't.

My situation is different from most groups of this sort in that I am the clearly defined leader of the group. What this means is that I choose the books (in advance for the year, more on that later) and I tend to do some extra reading in biography, criticism, other works by the author in question (but then I'm a bit of a geek), and then I lead the discussion. What this means is that I try and elicit comments, connect comments, ask questions when people aren't talking about much, interject some pertitent information from the other books I've read. I try to be very conscious and careful about not dominating conversation but facilitating it, although I do sometimes take contrarian positions which I argue in order to keep conversation lively.

I absolutely disagree with SuperSquirrel about regimenting even intial comments. If I've learned one thing over hundreds of bookgroup meetings its that different people come to these groups for different things. Some people pay money to literally never say a thing but simply to listen to the conversation. Making them talk accomplishes nothing but putting them in a spot which they did not choose. (I, incidentally, have only one rule in my groups, which is that people are not allowed to preface a comment by saying that they didn't finish the book. Such prefaces do nothing to further the conversation, and indeed they limit it since people tend to respond to that "Oh, well everything changes later" rather than simply responding to what was said, "I thought the opposite because of what happened later...") Many people go to bookgroups because they want to discuss books in a way that they remember doing at college or elsewhere, and so aren't at all put off with the literary engagement that might drive others to leave a group. On the other hand, there are often people who talk too much, or try to dominate conversation. One benefit of having a leader, even a rotating one, is that they can move the conversation to other people. I'm not sure how to codify how that happens, but simple acknowledgment coupled with a deliberate elicitation of further comment by someone else who has expressed interest frequently does the trick.

There are as many different bookgroups as there are readers (almost), so there are a lot of ways to choose books. In my experience general fiction bookgroups can actually be the hardest to maintain precisely because the topic is so broad and the choice is so great. People often like very different things in their fiction. Topical bookgroups are very good because they attract people who are interested in a topic X, and then in being in a bookgroup about it, which raises the level of people who read the book and of participation. I've been in and lead long running book groups that read classical Greek authors, public policy texts, great books in various spiritual traditions. I've lead groups that read High Modernist fiction, Ulysses, Proust, 19th Century French Fiction, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Don Quixote, the list goes on. All of them were tied together around a subject, and the discussions over time have benefitted from what was previously read. The level of participation has been very high and the desire to continue has been very high as well.

As to choosing books: I'm not sure what you mean by inner snob. Do you mean that people would or would not want to read those books? Of the bookgroups I've run, the most well-attended have been the one in which I read Ulysses and the one in which I read In Search of Lost Time. For the second, that 3500 page novel about almost nothing (and also everything), I had over 100 people show up at first, and had to open up several sections to accomodate everyone. Similarly, the classics group I ran consistently had 15 people show up for discussions every month. People want to read and discuss books from the canon, not the latest stuff on the NYT bestseller list. For one thing, the latter frequently don't hold up to much discussion; for another, people seem to feel as if they are getting plenty of exposure to that stuff on their own. I'm obviously talking about my own experience here, but people ask me all the time to read more "classic" and more difficult work, stuff they want to read but would not read on their own, and when I suggest books with unfamiliar titles people are much less likely to sign up.

Bookgroups can be really fulfilling. Good luck.
posted by OmieWise at 8:42 AM on May 19, 2006 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the answers in here, they've been helpful to me, too.

I've started a book club and our first meeting is this weekend, so we'll see how it goes!
posted by dead_ at 9:50 AM on May 19, 2006

OmieWise: On the other hand, there are often people who talk too much, or try to dominate conversation. One benefit of having a leader, even a rotating one, is that they can move the conversation to other people.

This is an excellent point. The only group I have personal experience with did not have a leader, and therefore the strongest personality(ies) tended to dominate the conversation. This frustrated others in the group, who may not have been as learned, but still had thoughts and opinions to share.

I still think it is a good idea to require participation on some level, however. Even a simple "I hated this book because it gave me nightmares*" can be a useful beginning.

*My actual first comment in my first-ever bookgroup meeting. I was the last one to speak, and couldn't think of anything more to say that hadn't already been covered.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 11:36 AM on May 19, 2006

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