Starting and running a book club can be a challenging but very rewarding venture. Here are a few tips to help make your reading group a success:
When recruiting members for the book club do not just restrict the candidates to friends or just to strangers. You might start out with a group of friends but relationships may become strained whilst a group of strangers may quickly become familiar and affectionate after a few meetings together. Remember that the most important thing is for potential members to have an interest in book discussion and in reading to expand their minds and have new experiences.
It’s important to set goals for the book club and to decide on the style and tone of the reading group. Then make sure that all new members have these clearly explained to them and are happy with them. This prevents members from feeling resentful or unsatisfied as the meetings progress. Things to consider include:
Do people just want an enjoyable chat about the book or an in-depth literary analysis?
Are people if one member hasn’t finished reading the book but still attends the meeting?
Will the books cover a wide range of topics or be focused on a specific genre, type or area of interest? Should the variety include non-fiction?
Are people happy to read books by authors or in genres they wouldn’t normally consider?
Are members happy with the cost of acquiring the books?
What kind of atmosphere do members want for the club? Serious and scholarly or light and social?
You can save a lot of valuable time by setting aside a specified meeting or gathering to choose your books in advance. It is a common complaint in many book clubs that they spend half of each meeting trying to decide what to read next. Some reading groups set aside one meeting each year just to choose the books they will be reading in the coming year or for the next 6 months. It is worth keeping in mind, though, that the interests and focus of the group may change over time and therefore to be flexible about book choices, especially if you have planned very far ahead. Planning books in advance also means that you can take advantage of discount suppliers and cheaper paperback versions.
While it is a good idea to have reading guides and prepared questions for discussion, it is also important to let the discussion “flow” and be spontaneous. Don’t stick too rigidly to the planned schedule if conversation is lively and members are participating enthusiastically – no need to rush on to the next topic or make sure that you have ticked off all discussion points on your list!
Don’t be afraid to choose books which might be controversial. The best books for discussion are often the ones which polarise people’s opinions and stimulates people to explain why they loved or hated the book and to question other members’ opinions. The worst books are those which do not stir any strong emotion, whether positive or negative, as it is almost impossible to have a successful discussion in this case. However, it might be a good idea to leave very controversial topics, particularly about religion and politics, to later when the group is more established and the members are more familiar with each other.
Having an assigned leader can make all the difference to a successful meeting. It helps to keep discussions focused and on track and prevents awkward starting silences when no-one may be willing to kick off the conversation. Alternatively, it also prevents “problem members” who may dominate the conversation and inhibit other members from contributing. As the leader is given the “authority”, it is easier for him or her to take charge and even be blunt without causing too much personal offence. Letting members take turns being the “leader” can give everyone a chance to see things from a group point of view and so prevent any hurt feelings.
If you’re really having trouble getting a discussion going, look critically at the kind of books you have chosen. For instance, non-fiction books and short stories might be worthy reads but they are not the ideal choices for stimulating book discussions. Non-fiction, for example, often address their subjects without the additional layers of author imagination that can give the book a rich complexity. (Having said that, certain non-fiction books, such as historical books, can tackle very controversial topics and some subjects are treated very imaginatively, but these tend to be the exceptions). If you’re reading short stories, it may be a better idea to focus discussion on one story rather than the whole collection, as this can chop up the discussion so much that it is difficult to keep the flow of conversation going.
Make a conscious effort to separate the socialising from the literary discussion, although how rigidly you adhere to this rule depends partly on the nature of your book club and the atmosphere you have decided upon. However, overall, it is better to keep things separate – for example, having a venue open from 7pm for drinks and gossip, with discussion beginning at 7:30pm. Otherwise, you may run the risk of members feeling dissatisfied and resentful because socialising dominates the evening and you never get to the book discussion properly.
Especially if you’re the host for the meeting, it would be a good idea to do some research beforehand and prepare some things for when the conversation founders or there is an uncomfortable lull – for example, you could print off information from the author’s website or current reviews of the book, which can spark off conversation again. If you’re really stuck, you can always ask members what other books they may have read since the last meeting.
Finally, remember that whatever rules you decide on, the main aim of a book club is to read and discuss books in a fun environment. Therefore remain flexible in your expectations – what worked for another group, might not work for your club. Similarly, make sure that all members respect the theory that there is no right or wrong in literary interpretation and that all members are entitled to their opinions. No matter what format your book club takes, if members are enjoying themselves, then the group has a good chance of lasting and being a success.