Imagine this familiar scenario: A book club decides to meet at a specific time and place. The host lit candles, put wine and cheese on a table, arranged the chairs in a circle, and set the background music on. Guests arrive, perhaps carrying hard-shell cases or library-wrapped dust jackets. The room filled with chatter as the attendees grabbed their glasses and sat down. Then there’s some silence, some slurring of thumbs, and some sipping. Finally, the truth comes out: no one has ever read the book. Readers may have read the title in question but found it boring. This is probably the second or fifth month in a row that this has happened. Someone might break the tension by asking another member about their job or relationship, and soon the whole affair turns into a social get-together, or – worse – things calm down. Perhaps the club stops meeting altogether, or the gatherings end up off the beaten path, the group may have dined together, without having to read.
This scene is recognizable for a reason: Managing a book club is difficult. Coordination combines social obligation and homework primarily for adults. Even journalists who cover books are prone to this pattern. Like many others, I tried to start a book club in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. I was home all the time with little to do other than reading; I had a willing group of my best friends on board; We made a table and discussed the titles. And perhaps like a large group of clubs that started similarly, our team failed very quickly. We struggled to decide what to read, had trouble meeting constantly, and eventually gave up on the project altogether.
Where did we go wrong? How do we prepare ourselves for future success? More importantly, what would that look like? To find out, I spoke with booksellers, librarians, professors, and other professionals in the literary world. Their advice varied, but they all agreed on a few key themes.
A good way to attract the right people to your club — and keep them focused — is to be upfront about what you’re reading and what your goals are. With the huge number of books in the world, and more books being released each year, publishing more books can spread chaos. (Part of the reason my friends and I struggle to finish our choices is our stance on suggesting titles.) Reading Shakespeare’s plays. In another book they read the winners of the International Booker Prize. And at The Intimidating Book Club, readers sign up to skip the challenging classics – the collection is over Middle MarchAnd the Moby DickAnd the The Brothers Karamazov. Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Books in DC and Silver Spring, Maryland, runs a club that has been making its way through the Agatha Christie business for three years.
The clear form shows the attendees what to expect. But don’t get bogged down in weeds either: “Try to be as innovative as possible, but not so idiosyncratic that people are like, ‘What is this?'” (In that group, members read a cookbook each month, and McDermott prepares food for participants to share), said Sean McDermott, another DCPL librarian who runs a cookbook club.
It is important to choose the right book…
Everyone I spoke to had opinions about how to choose a book to read, but most agreed that a good book club book isn’t necessarily a book that everyone in the group will love. When you choose a book, you should practice what librarians call “reader advice,” which Ron Bergquist, associate professor of information and library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, defines as “being able to understand what readers want to read even if they can’t express it.” What it is ”- and even if it goes against your own taste. This mindset is important when you’re in a club with friends whose preferences differ from yours, as I was. I really wanted to read Patricia Lockwood’s book Nobody talks about thisBut he confessed to her Unique online addictive style It doesn’t work with everyone. Instead, as a group of 20 women, we agreed on Meg Jay specified contract, a 2012 book that argues that people between the ages of 20 and 29 are critical to future success and happiness. I’m not usually a reader of psychological films, but putting myself in the shoes of my groupmates helped me find something that would spark discussion.
…but don’t overthink it.
Putting too much emphasis on choosing the perfect title is not helpful. Instead, Oliver Depp said, choice should get people talking, even if they don’t like it or disagree with it. (It is to be expected that Jay’s style did not appeal to me.) Nor does it have to be particularly popular or known: Elizabeth Egan, who writes a monthly literary column called “Group Text” at The The New York Times, she said she is trying to choose the “unsung heroes” – titles that might be unexpected. Egan summarizes and comments on the book, then offers discussion questions and other suggested readings, so her column serves as a kind of “starting pack” for book clubs. Other simple tips I picked up: Make a scheduled reading list and choose something available in a paperback – easy to carry and can be stored widely in stores and libraries.
Set the rhythm.
When deciding how often you will meet, consider how much time everyone should commit to reading. Most people I spoke to described meeting once a month, although you can adapt to the needs of your group. Erica Parker, director of adult programming at the New York Public Library, emphasized that having a consistent meeting time is a “key element,” so members can include it in their schedules. Leaving too much time between meetings can be counterproductive, even if it seems to give members more time to finish the title. (This may be one of the biggest weaknesses in my team, I know; we’ve scheduled our meetings for nine weeks.)
To keep things organized and objective, some experts like Nguyen strongly suggested appointing someone to lead the discussion. She said their role was mainly to protect the group. With someone in charge, the conversation is less likely to be derailed by a talkative participant, and an interruption can be dealt with politely. The leader can also prepare and ask open-ended questions, which are especially useful when what you have read has a lot to break down. “Creating a supportive environment is a big part of making sure there is support for books that may be more intense or challenging,” Parker told me. With someone directing the analysis, embarrassing silences are less likely. However, Nguyen cautioned, “silence is an excellent learning tool,” even when it’s uncomfortable, so you shouldn’t avoid those moments entirely. A good facilitator will realize this and make way for things.
It’s okay not to finish the book.
A classic horror story – a room full of people who didn’t read the selection – might seem like a scenario to be avoided at all costs. But someone who hasn’t finished (or, in some cases, started) can still show up and contribute valuable ideas to the discussion. “We really encourage people to engage with the content in whatever way makes sense to them,” Parker told me. Egan said not making it to the end shouldn’t be a shame. “Feel free to switch stations on the radio when you’re driving and you hear a song you don’t like…I’ve always had a strict no-guilt policy. If it doesn’t work out for you, and you give it a fair shake, on to the next book.”
If people don’t read the book, Nguyen said, this is an opportunity to “read it together aloud, maybe slowly, and then stop and say…” How did you experience this passage? or “What do you think that title means?” Not finishing isn’t a disaster—but finishing is worth celebrating too, even if it was a book you didn’t like. To me, that was silent patientBy Alex Michaelides (We’d be ready to adapt the movie, at least).
The most important thing is communication.
“I think people put a lot of pressure on themselves to make sure that … they have the right food and it’s the right choice and people won’t feel like they’re wasting time,” said Shannon DeVito, director of books at Barnes & Noble. I. But what readers really want is to “connect with people and learn more about each other through an imaginative lens,” she said. DeVito explained that you don’t have to have an identity as a reader to get something out of the meetings: anyone can establish contact with fellow group members if they give them an honest shot.
What I wanted from my book club was to meet up with my friends, even though we were separated due to geography and the risk of disease. Even though we didn’t last long, thinking about the same challenges and thinking about the same ups and downs and showing up to talk about them was valuable. The reading was just a pretend to get us all in the same Zoom room. So here’s the last piece of advice I got: Even if your meetings are over, respect the conversations you’ve had. The most important part of a book club is the club, not the books.
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