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Eternal Favourites for Book Clubs

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 16 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
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A book club is not only dependent on the participation of its members but also on the strength of its reading list. So choosing the right books for your reading group is crucial. Naturally, this will be dictated partly by the tastes of the members, especially if there is any leaning towards a particular genre. Nevertheless, there are certain titles that become book club favourites again and again, in several reading groups across the country.

What makes a book club favourite?

People’s tastes in books understandably vary and reading is a very subjective experience, therefore it can be difficult to come to a consensus on the “best books of all time.” From the point of view of book clubs however, there are certain characteristics that define the ‘best’ reading club books. These are books that are interesting to a wide range of readers, are easily available, ideally not too long and – most importantly, spark a lot of discussion.

Since discussion meetings are at the heart of every book club, a novel that is easy to discuss and generates a lot of discussion is a top pick. It’s important to remember that not everyone has to love the book – in fact, if opinions are divided, so much the better! A book that polarises a group will generate much livelier discussion than one which everyone loves and agrees on. A controversial book with no middle ground is ideal – everyone will either hate or love it and will have something to say about it. If members really liked – or disliked – the characters, setting, themes, style of writing or voice, they can raise this in the discussions while using examples from the book to support or explain their views. In fact, many a book club member has admitted having an enjoyable discussion about a book they absolutely loathed!

Another good type of book would be one so rich with different layers that different members would get different things from the book. This again will keep everyone engaged in conversation during meetings as members discover other aspects to the book they had not seen, through their fellow reading group member’s eyes, thus giving everyone lots of food for thought.

All-time favourites

If you are just starting out and are unsure what titles to put on your reading group’s book list – or you are looking for new additions to the existing list – you could do worse than to check out some “all-time book club favourites”. Where do you find these? Well, there no one definitive list but there are many sources which provide good shorlists of the top recommendations by and for book clubs. The Amazon website, for example, has a section devoted to book clubs which not only lists new releases and popular picks but even suggestions for other related titles based on a book you like, as well as lists of ‘best books’ grouped by theme.

Your local library can be another great source of book club favourites. Libraries often feature “top 10” lists on display or may have notice boards providing this sort of information. If in doubt, a quick look through the classics may give you inspiration – after all, they are known as “classics” for a reason. Their stories, characters and writing have stood the test of time and a wide readership. In fact, in a recent poll of 125 of the world’s most celebrated writers for their individual Top 10 lists, the final list derived from all their choices combined was strongly dominated by ‘classics’:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  • The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot

A similar exercise could be done in a book club by asking each member to come up with their Top 10 list and then creating a group list which combined the common elements of all the members’ lists. This would not only be a diplomatic method but would also hopefully provide variety as it makes the most of the members’ diverse tastes and experience.

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