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10 Steps to Building a Better Book Club

I’ve been in a lot of book clubs. Unlike the movie versions of staid, gentile discussions, book clubs can have a lot of drama. Odd things can happen, like the police being called to break up a fight over whether or not the main character is a closet knitter. Perhaps one member is abrasive or overbearing, or another member being too shy to speak, yet other members refuse to read any of the books. At times the discussion gets boring or always ends up coming back around to the Nazis. Here are my tips on how to avoid these and other common pitfalls when starting a book club. Implement these steps into your existing book club to liven it up or get it back on track.

1. Look outside your circle. Gather a group of about different 5 friends. Have each friend bring an acquaintance to enhance the discussion with original viewpoints. Don’t start a book club with your immediate circle, or you run the risk of never talking about the book. I’m the odd man out in one of my book clubs. I’ll probably quit it soon because the other members are a tight clique. They spend more time gossiping than they do discussing the book. If I hear one more “this is how COOL I was in high school” story I’m going to denounce Jane Austen in public. Gossip and Glory Days stories are fine, but don’t let chat take over the night until you are finished the book discussion. And give the unwilling witnesses some time to high tail it out of there before the chorus of Auld Lang Syne begins.

2. Have a common thread. It helps if members all have at least one thing in common: you all work for the same employer, you all live in the same town, you are all past presidents of the I-love-bratwurst club, etc. This gives acquaintances something to chat about during breaks and after the discussion is over, while you are piling onions over your sausage links.

3. Decide on a theme. Decide each year if you are going to read fiction only, a combination of fiction and non-fiction, one author’s books, prize winners, a specific genre, etc. Stick to the genre or theme strictly, or resentment will pop up over rejected book selections. And when I say ‘resentment’ I mean that your tires will be slashed and your driver’s door keyed.

4. Recruit enough members. Having 9-10 members ensures that you will have enough members for a lively discussion. 10-15 people is the absolute maximum number for a book club. Some groups do very well with just 5 or 6 committed members but it is good to have a few more members in case some can’t make the meeting. Plus, 10 people is a posse. You never know when you might need one of those.

5. Rotate hosting. The general rule is that if you suggest the book, then you run the meeting. This means you host at your house and you come up with the discussion questions. You also act as discussion leader, keeping topics on track. Sometimes the hosting rotates between the same 3 or 4 people in the group because everyone else has young kids or other barriers to hosting, like radon gas leaks. Another book club of stay-at-home moms I know meets during the day while the little ones play (this is insane, don’t do this). If you can find a meeting place like a church, then that takes the onus away from members, but one person must co-ordinate with the meeting space owner. This duty should be rotated every year or so also. Rotating duties helps avoid hosting burnout. Also for our book clubs, no one shows up empty handed. We all bring a snack or a drink. I usually bring a drink. With no less than 20% alcohol in it.

6. Rotate meeting days. We toggle between Wednesday nights and Thursday nights, every other month. Our schedules are varied, as we all are parents of school age children. If we toggle the meeting nights, everyone can make at least one night. Nights also give us the excuse to drink. Although I do hear that they break out the mimosas at the daytime group…

7. Keep the book length manageable. If you choose a longer book, add a few weeks on the reading schedule. You can do the math. My groups can read about 6 pages a day. That’s 6 weeks for a 264 page book. Gauge your group. You may have to stick with Junie B. Jones. Whatever works.

8. Have a NO MENTION list. The old adage is to never discuss religion or politics, and it is advice best heeded for a book club. If you have varied political or cultural backgrounds amongst your members, you want to ensure proper etiquette is followed. Some other suggestions for the NO MENTION list: School happenings, kids’ relationships, the past, personal finances, anal welts, etc. Decide which subjects would derail your polite company, and announce a reminder at the beginning of each meeting until everyone follows the policy. If they don’t follow the policy, engage the posse.

9. Distribute the books en masse. “En Masse” doesn’t mean in church (but hey, whatever works). Our library has “Book Club Kits” which include multiple copies of the same title that can be checked out for longer periods than the normal two or three weeks. One person can check it out and distribute the books to the members. That one person is responsible for collecting and returning the books. Sometimes we pass these Book Club kit copies amongst each other if there aren’t enough copies to go around. We blame the coffee rings on page 34 on the person we borrowed the book from. It’s convenient.

10. Have an open-door policy for members. Members are invited to every meeting whether or not they’ve read the book. YES, BOOK CLUB POLICE, this means YOU. Have a heart. It may have been a busy month for your member, but that shouldn’t exclude him from coming to the meeting and joining in the “bigger issues” discussions. He can also listen and socialize. This policy is important. The main reason for a book club isn’t the books. It’s the discussions and socializing. All members need to be flexible and inclusive. Get off your high horse; go get yourself a sausage and some wine and enjoy.

If anyone has any more suggestions, by all means, peep up!

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