I was recently invited and agreed to join a book club. My initial reaction was unfavorable. For one thing, inviting someone who talks about books for a living and who writes his own as an avocation to join your book club is a little like asking a member of the Cavaliers to play on your rec league basketball team or asking your priest to join your bible study group. Also, I knew that the proclaimed purpose of many clubs fails to accurately reflect the activities in which they engage when gathered. For example, some card clubs rarely play cards and many of the customers in gentlemen’s clubs are hardly gentlemen. Similarly, in many book clubs, the actual discussion of the book under study is not even secondary but tertiary in importance to the food and the general conversation. In the end, I joined and I’m glad I did. Thus far, t has worked out splendidly.
As an author who has spoken at a number of book club gatherings and, now, as a member of one of my own, I thought I’d offer a few suggestions for those wishing to establish a “books first” book club.
1. Membership – The membership should be limited to 5 – 10 individuals. The small number allows for each reader to contribute to the conversation in a meaningful and thorough manner. Secondly, the members do not need to be close friends. In fact, I think it works better when the majority of members are more acquaintances than friends. The lack of familiarity helps to maintain focus on the book under study rather than the news from one another’s lives. Thirdly, the membership should represent a diverse cross section of society that brings a wide array of belief and value systems to the discussion table. Therefore, members of different age, ethnic, racial, religious, and political groups should be represented, and most importantly, there should be a gender balance. My own book club miserably fails to live up to this suggestion. Perhaps, over time we will be able to address it.
2. Meeting Frequency – The club should convene every other month. For many, largely because of other time demands, reading a book a month can be onerous, especially if the book under study is lengthy. The two-month period should allow everyone ample time to finish the book, and it also keeps the experience of book club fresh and something to be looked forward to rather than a responsibility to be endured.
3. Refreshments – Keep food and drink to a bare minimum; otherwise, it will become a source of stress and competition, and it may shift the focus of the gathering to the food rather than the book. In addition, the eating becomes a time hog that greatly reduces the time that remains to discuss the book. Most importantly, it takes the stress of pleasing and impressing everyone’s palette off of the host’s shoulders. It’s tough enough to choose a book that will satisfy the diverse reading tastes of the membership and much more difficult to plan a menu to satisfy their culinary tastes.
4. Time Parameters – Begin a couple hours after mealtime. This allows members to eat at home and to make heavy refreshments unnecessary (see above). Set a three-hour time limit. Even if the conversation isn’t completed, that’s okay. It’s not necessary to solve every question the book may raise; there’s nothing wrong with leaving more to chew on. It might even inspire a re-reading and even deeper appreciation/understanding of the book.
5. Facilitator – There should be a facilitator to initiate and further discussion. If the group is leaderless, the discourse will meander, and side discussions will be initiated and fracture the group. The facilitator could be the same person each meeting, or the position could rotate in whatever manner the group sees fit.
6. Book Choice – The most important factor in constructing a successful book club experience is the selection of reading material. Firstly, the concern should not be to please every member. Part of being in a book club is the experience of reading material you would never have chosen for yourself. If you are not excited by this proposition, you probably don’t belong in a serious book club. Secondly, limit the selections to literary novels. Nonfiction books and popular novels are written almost entirely literally. What you read is exactly what you get. Once it’s established what actually happens in the book, there is nothing left to discuss. With nonfiction and page turners, there is little to no room for personal interpretations to be introduced and bandied about – and that is the fun part and the primary reason why book clubs exist.
In the end, I believe anything that motivates folks to read is a good thing, and any manifestation of a book club is a fundamentally good enterprise rather books, food, or simple fellowship dominates the time. My suggestions as outlined above are primarily for those serious readers who want the book experience to remain at the center of conversation and for the discussion to be as stimulating and, sometimes, even life-changing as possible.