Book clubs are great, but sometimes they veer a bit off course. If you're hoping to join a book club or start one that's about, you know, actual reading, Elyssa Friedland — author of Love and Miss Communication (out today) — is here to help.
Book clubs are one of those things that sound amazing in theory but in practice tend to fall short. I've belonged to several books clubs since graduating college, and I've even started some on my own. They tend to start off strong, with lots of enthusiasm and goodwill. Yes, we are literate! No, we don't only watch TV! Maybe this is what has been missing from our lives!
I give the average book club about three meetings before the deterioration begins. The novelty wears off. The pressure of looking stupid in front of the group fades. The book selection is less thoughtful. Suddenly you find yourself heading out at night (leaving your boyfriend/kids/husband/laundry/TV) to attend your lofty book club, when several hours later you come home and realize the only thing you did was down two glasses of red wine and gossip about the Kardashians. Come to think of it, was anyone even holding a copy of the book? Did anyone actually read it?
Reading is one of life's greatest pleasures. Discussing a great book with fellow readers should enhance the experience — adding new dimensions to the characters and thickening the plot beyond a first interpretation. So here are my top 10 tips for keeping your book club on track.
1. Don't do it with your best friends.
Here's an easy way to cut out the chitchat that takes away from the book discussion: put together a group of acquaintances or friends of friends, rather than a tight circle where everyone knows each other. The benefits will be twofold. First, since you won't all know each other well, the temptation to catch up socially will be limited. Second, by bringing together a group of people from different social spheres, the viewpoints and perspectives will be more varied. Think about the last book you read: wouldn't it have been interesting to hear what someone 20 years older or younger or of a different race or religion than you thought about it?
2. Rotate who chooses the book.
This one is about empowerment and respect. By rotating who chooses the book, it makes everyone in the book club feel like an equal member and gives them a stake in the group. It will likely lead to more variation in the types of books chosen as well as help ensure the book club has something for everyone. Letting each member choose a book makes things personal. You don't want to be on your phone the whole time or announce you didn't read the book when you know your fellow book clubber put a lot of thought into the selection. So while we are all tempted to do whatever Oprah does, I don't suggest just reading whatever she suggests. Let each member choose a book instead. Because Oprah isn't coming to your book club, but your friend is.
3. Send out advance questions and pass them out at the book club.
I'm not suggesting your book club goes corporate, nor am I proposing middle-school-style homework, but having each book club member submit one question to the designated "leader" or having one rotating person responsible for coming up with a list of questions can really help facilitate a stimulating discussion. And for those more delinquent members of the group, skimming the list of questions can help them contribute meaningfully even if they haven't quite finished the book. And if no one has time to prepare the questions, check the back of the book to see if there's a reading guide or an author interview. If not, or in addition, look online for reviews and author interviews that might spark a good conversation.
4. Do it at work.
A simple way to spice up your lunch hour without ordering in Thai? Start a book club at work. This will fly better in some offices than others, but a workplace book club has many advantages. It's during the day, when our minds are still fresh; it's in a professional setting that is conducive to serious discussion; it's limited in length therefore focusing the conversation; and, in many cases, the co-workers will be more diverse than a group of friends. There are drawbacks, of course. People may feel more inhibited sharing personal stories or be worried about social and political correctness. But at least it'll be alcohol free (I'm assuming) and nobody will want to appear dumb in front of their colleagues!
5. Call the writer.
Believe it or not, many writers are willing to call into book groups or do Skype sessions. Local authors might even consider coming in person. Check the cover or back pages of the book to see if any contact information is provided. If there's no information provided in the book, check the author's website. Your book club may want to try the website Book the Writer, although that website charges a fee to bring authors to book clubs. Many writers are happy to call in or web-chat for free. If the author is participating, everyone will be more motivated to read the book and contribute, and even if they don't, at least they won't bring up The Bachelor.
6. Build in social time.
Understanding that book clubs are inherently social in nature, build a social component into the evening. If your group meets in the evening, allow for 30 minutes in the beginning for schmoozing. Or save it for the end, like a good dessert. Just be mindful of everyone's time, and don't promise the book club will meet from 6 to 8 p.m. only to sit down to finally talk about the book at 7:45.
7. Size matters.
Size does matter when it comes to choosing books for reading groups, among other things. Yes, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt topped the bestseller lists. And The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is a must read. But they may not be the best choices for book clubs. We all lead busy lives, and finding the time to read is getting harder and harder. A simple solution? Choose shorter books. Shorter doesn't mean weaker. Take Everybody's Baby by Lydia Netzer, a 133-page novella. It's about a couple that decides to raise money on Kickstarter to pay for fertility treatments in exchange for giving away certain parental rights (naming, first feeding, cord cutting). I can tell you there were more-provocative themes in those short pages than in most books I've read that are five times as long.
8. Give ample time between sessions.
So many book clubs start off ambitiously. We're going to read to Dante's Inferno! Our discussions will be lofty. But Dante and Dostoyevsky are really wordy and not exactly "skimmable." And Scandal was so good last night that you all just need to discuss it for a few minutes. Then poof, your book club is as sophisticated as TMZ. Some of us can devour a book for breakfast, but others need more time. Consider leaving at least four weeks between meetings. Once a month may even be too hasty for some groups. The point is that you want your book club to feel like a pleasure, not a chore, so eliminate the pressure.
9. Have a cell-phone bowl (like a key party).
Of all my tips, this is the one I imagine will have the greatest impact. No matter where the book club is meeting, set out a bowl by the entrance with a simple sign attached: "Drop your distraction here." It is impossible to have a substantial, focused conversation about literature when the book club members are simultaneously Instagramming the spinach-artichoke dip, texting their babysitters, and looking up the weather forecast. Unless you are an emergency-room doctor, you can drop your cell phone into a bowl for the hour it will take for your book club discussion. I promise you're not missing out on anything.
10. Venture into nonfiction.
For some reason, book clubs tend to be predominantly female, and females tend to read predominantly fiction. But there's a world of fascinating, informative, and page-turning nonfiction books that will get everyone reaching for their Kindle. Some suggestions: Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl for an honest, comical memoir from a truly talented writer and actress. Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In to spark a discussion about women in the workforce. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel, a riveting tale about growing up in an extremist Muslim community, will have you gasping for air. Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project is another crowd-pleaser. I could go on and on. The departure from fiction can break up the rhythm of a book club roster and vary the flavor of the discussion.
I hope these 10 tips help your book club thrive. Happy reading!
Elyssa Friedland is the author of Love and Miss Communication, to be published by William Morrow on May 12. She has started several book clubs and chaired a popular author series in New York City. To see what she's reading now, visit her website at ElyssaFriedland.com.