I belong to three book clubs. Each one has a different approach and personality. I’ve belonged to one for more than twenty years, another for seven or eight years, and the third is a more recent formed group.
Book clubs – whether in person or online – are popular with readers. The surveys I’ve done suggest that up to 30% of readers belong to a book club that meets either in person or online and that women are more likely to belong to a book club than men. You can read more about the dynamic of book clubs here.
What makes a book club successful? A few thoughts based on my experiences.
Size doesn’t matter. While living in Hong Kong, I belonged to a book club for two. Tita and I had a wonderful time discussing the books we’d chosen – some fiction and others non-fiction. We took our task seriously with each of us bringing notes along to the meeting and an hour or more would pass before we knew it. Another book club I belong to often has thirty or more participants, and while intimacy is lost, the wide range of opinions makes up for it.
Don’t choose books that are too long. Over the years, I’ve concluded that books longer than 400 pages are too long. If the book is too long, several people won’t read it or will grow frustrated with the story/content. Frustration does not lead to a good discussion.
Select a variety of books for your season. I prefer a mix of fiction and non-fiction, a variety of topics during the season, and books that allow me to learn about something. For example, this year I’ve read Educated by Tara Westover, Citizens of London by Lynne Olson, The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. One memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family, one non-fiction set in London during WWII, one fiction set in Alaska and another in Malaysia.
Don’t be afraid to read something different. One year, we chose to read a play (I think it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), another year we chose a slim volume of poetry. There was a year where every book was from outside North America, and another where every book dealt with the same theme. Such choices enrich the reading experience.
You need a moderator. Someone needs to select topics for the group and guide the discussion. Think of your book club like a meeting with a purpose – the purpose being to explore the experience of reading a particular book, how it affected different people, the significance of the book’s themes, characters, and setting, what made a particular book an excellent or a poor read. And so on. The moderator keeps the group on track, invites participation, ensures that no person dominates and so on.
Choose topics that foster discussion. The lively conversations that follow will lead to a deeper appreciation of reading as exploration, encountering characters whose life philosophies and experiences are vastly different from yours, discovering unknown places and cultures, vicariously inhabiting challenging circumstances. To do this, consider looking at reviews to discover the varying opinions others have and base questions on what you find. Choose topics that are broad enough for most members of the group to connect with. For example, what themes does XYZ novel explore? How important are they to the story? Are they relevant today? In my experience, the topics suggested at the back of most books of fiction are not particularly useful.
Agree on the rules for discussion. The social aspect of physical meetings seems to augment the experience, as does the ability to watch expressions and gestures for clues to what others are thinking. Proximity brings immediacy to the exchange and a liveliness that cannot be replicated over the Internet. But … you knew there would be a but, didn’t you? … no one enjoys a discussion where one or two people dominate or it wanders off topic all the time or an individual makes a sweeping statement that seems to diminish all other opinions. Set a few rules. Usually the moderator takes on the role of reminding participants about the rules, if required.
Make time to socialize. I’ve heard of some groups where participants are so busy socializing, they hardly get around to discussing the book. In my opinion, this isn’t a book club! On the other hand, a group that meets at 7pm, starts the discussion immediately, and breaks up at 8pm without any time to socialize isn’t much fun. Just like any gathering, refreshments add a welcoming feeling that fosters participation.
Please add your tips for successful book clubs in the comments.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.