Book Clubs – What They Are and How to Start and Maintain a Book Club

A book club – or more precisely, a book discussion club – is a group of people meeting, in reality or on-line, to discuss a book they all have read. It can also be called a book or literature circle or reading group.

Just do it

It is easy to start one of your own, if you are not happy with the book choices of the book clubs in your area. It’s practically as easy as just deciding you will have one. You do not need to recruit members, buy books for everyone nor register your book club or anything alike. You will just ask your friends or put an announce on a free bulletin board in your area (don’t forget the library bulletin board), or create an online forum/group for your book club, and you are ready to go. Making the book club a good one, that is a totally different issue.

Decisions, decisions

Decide how the books are going to be chosen. Do you choose all the books, are you going to follow an existing list of books or an existing book club, is every member going to choose a book in turns, or are you going to have a common vote on books? Decide if you are going to let the group decide.

Decide the limits of books to be chosen.

It cannot be a rare copy or expensive, so that everyone has the chance to participate. If you decide to let the books go round, and someone wants everyone to read a rare or expensive book he/she owns, and is willing to borrow it to all, then a book like this can be chosen. Otherwise it is best to stay at recent (not very new) books with a pocket print available.Also, you need to set limits to the size of books. A good medium is 350 pages.

If you are going to let everyone choose a book on turn, you need to have a list and keep it well updated, so that everyone gets to choose a book. This is also the only time when the person who selects the book is going to present it too, otherwise you have to do it, unless you manage to enroll someone to volunteer for the job.

You present the book by explaining a little what it is about and why you chose it. It is always fun to know more about the author, what else she/he has written, what books are like this one (in your opinion) and some background information about the places and events taking place in the book. Collect this in a handout. Add pictures and suggested soundtrack or movies, list of main characters, maps and so on. Find the reading guide – or write one yourself – and distribute copies to the whole group.

Choose the first book, and make a list of 12 books all ready to the first meeting, so if you decide you choose all the books, the reading list is already ready. Otherwise, you need to start this list already in the first meeting, so that everyone will get the list to the second meeting. Naturally, it can be hard to choose books without time to think, so ask the choosers call you with their choice, so that you can prepare the list, and also prepare the presentation in advance, if the one choosing for some reason has not done that.

You can also ask people to recommend books out their turn, and write this on a book suggestion list, so that if someone cannot make up their mind of the book, he/she can choose a book from the list. Also, people might be interested in reading books outside the official, agreed book list.

Decide if you are all going to read the same book and then discuss it, or if you are going to have a book list and everyone may read the books on the list on their own time and preferences, or decide if you are going to let the group decide this too.

Decide when you will have the first meeting. Have a preliminary meeting timetable prepared. It is possible that this timetable will change at the first meeting, but you need to have one ready, just in case.

Have meetings as often as you like, but at least once a month. Most people without large problems will be able to read a book in a month, and if you are having a book club, you also need to set deadlines, so that the book club will not fall with your members not keeping up with one another.

Decide where you will have the first meeting and see that the space is available. You can have the meetings in restaurants or in your homes, or try to see if you can find a meeting room. Libraries usually have meeting rooms you can use. The group may want to change this too, to better fit their needs, but you have to make the decision for all the first time. It is a good idea to meet at home, so that a good night doesn’t need to end at closing time.

There must be an access to a toilet and a possibility for smokers to smoke. You can ask your guests to go out to smoke, but you have to know where smoking is allowed around your home.

If you meet in homes, see that everyone is informed about possible smoking, pets and house rules.

You need to decide how many members you want. The group should be about 5-10 people, and have something in common outside the book club. You can decide if you want a same sex group, only read science fiction and fantasy, and so on.

You need to discuss the possibility of the members bringing their friends too.

Have a contact list, where people write their names and telephone numbers, just in case. Give everyone your telephone number, so that they can reach you if need be.

You also need to have a way of finding out if everyone has got the book and that the majority has read the book. If people cannot get a hold of a book, or if most people have not read the book, it’s useless to have the meeting.

Prepare a small introduction of yourself. It should be short and precise: your name and why you want to be part of a book club. Include what kind of books you like to read, who’s your favorite author or book, what you are reading at the moment, what do you plan to read in the future and what do you expect of the book club – good books you would not read without the club, good food, if you plan to have the meetings in restaurants, company of nice people who love books and reading like you do, interesting and active discussions about the books and thoughts the books awakened… Whatever it is you expect. Also, tell the others what you expect of them. The minimum requirement is that they are interested, plan on reading at least most of the books and come prepared to participate in discussions. Also, say what you think about using cell phones during the meeting.

Ask your members these things too, and make notes, especially about the books on their reading list and their expectations. Adjust the book club to this.

Provide name tags for the first meeting, and to be used at every meeting until everyone knows one another.

The first meeting will be for learning to know one another, so it is not for book discussion, but discussing the last book everyone read might be a good way of learning to know everyone.

Decide how you want the meetings to go.

Let people socialize at the first for a while, but start the meeting by giving a short presentation of the book, and then let everyone give a short opinion on what they thought about the book, then let the speech be free. This way everyone gets to say something, but no-one needs to discuss, if they do not feel like it. Have the meeting in a circle where everyone sees everyone else, and cannot hide or be forgotten.

If people stop talking about the book, let them, but just for a while. Lead the discussion back to the book. You might need to be ruthless with this rule, but be nice about it. It’s okay to interrupt someone with “excuse me, but I have difficulties in keeping up with this… how is this connected to the book?” or “I’ sorry to interrupt you, but could you concise your story a little?”

Have a list of questions about the book prepared – there are several online book clubs with question lists prepared for different books, if you cannot find one for your book, create one. You do not need to use the questions, but they are good if the discussion dries out.

You can also use “book club icebreakers” and “book club games”. There are some available on-line.

After a while you can insert the presentation of the next book and general book club talk, then let the people just talk about whatever they want to.

Food and drink are an important part of every social meeting. You can meet in a restaurant and have the discussion as part of the dinner. It is even better to have a potluck dinner at home, so that the expenses of the food are shared, the poor aren’t left without food, and the cheap cannot get the atmosphere down. Pick food that fits the themes in the book.

Also, for the atmosphere and to get discussion going, try to play with the themes in other ways too. Use pictures and music, dress yourself appropriately and so on.

As with all social gatherings, there will be problems with personal issues and clashing personalities. In most book clubs there is bound to be at least one person who will not be nice about how others feel or think or express their opinions. There will be people who are not pleased with the book choices, even if you allow every member to choose a book, or if the books are chosen by common vote. This is nothing to be worried about, because people are different and react and act on their own manner. You cannot please everyone all the time, so do not even try. When something like this happens, tell the people that they may contact you privately about any complaint they have, that you will listen to them and take them seriously, and then move on in the discussion. Whatever you do, do not discipline the members in public.

Have a block of paper and some extra pens with you to the first meeting, so that people can write down the times, places and books, if they come unprepared.

Do not forget to enjoy the book club meetings and have fun yourself.