How to do more than drink wine at your book club

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The first rule of book club is… Photo: infowidget via Flickr

Every December, when those best books of the year lists start making the rounds, do you feel like patting yourself on the back, or are you amazed at how little you’ve read over the past 12 months?

If you’re in the latter camp, we get it. We live it. Life, small kids, and Master of None binge-watching sessions all get in the way of curling up with an all-consuming book. Not to mention the omnipresent urge to check Instagram, Facebook and your email. But if you would like to make sure that you don’t spend another year downloading dozens of samples from the Kindle app, but never reading further than a first chapter, you should consider getting some help—by joining a book club. 

“You end up reading things you wouldn’t have necessarily read on your own,” said Kate Hooker, a BB contributor who belongs to two book groups. Like a marathoner who runs in a pack, you’ll find the strength to finally get through The Power Broker knowing you’re reading alongside people who all share the same finish line, a date to meet and talk about plot, pacing, and some off-topic gossiping.

Because there will be gossiping. There is a reason “a lot of people joke about their book groups being an excuse to get together and drink wine,” said Molly Templeton, who runs WORD bookstore’s Classics book group. It’s called having fun in the company of friends.

To keep your literary discussions from veering off into rehashing the latest episode of Transparent or Serial, we asked our contributors, readers and a few expert organizers to share their tips on running a successful book club, whether you’re starting from scratch or want your existing group to adopt some new policies. By the end of 2016, you’ll be able to name the best book you read, not the only one you managed to finish.

Here are some ways to start thinking about what kind of a book club will be best suited to your schedule, tastes and social proclivities.

What You Would Like to Accomplish

Different types of book clubs cover different ground, and time constraints being a real thing, you’re going to be more successful if you choose the right kind of club. Oriana Leckert, another BB contributor and voracious reader, is one of the founders of Jugs and Capes, an all-woman bookclub that reads only graphic novels. She told us that even though she worked in publishing and was passionate about literary fiction, “I realized that graphic novels were a big deal and I wanted to be more knowledgable about them.” Leckert decided that the best way to go about that was to start a club to discuss with a community of other smart readers. About five years in, they’ve now read about 65 titles.

Other groups have broader aim, making their members widely well read. Luca Mihaly has been the central organizer of a book club that has been running for an impressive eight years, over which time they’ve read 95 titles. She keeps detailed notes in a shared Google doc recording which book they read each month, who picked it and what other titles came up for consideration. This group ranges across fiction, memoir, non-fiction and the occasional graphic novel. Sometimes they read something that feels very of the moment, other times they choose a classic that several members has always meant to read, or wanted to revisit. Mihaly says that record-keeping makes sure the mix stays fun, and helps them remember which books were most successful.

When to Meet

Deciding when to meet, where to meet and what to read are the crucial details you’ll need to nail down to get started. Do you want to meet every month or every 10 weeks? What day or night is best for everyone? A scheduler like Doodle.com can help you choose.

Jugs and Capes paired American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, with 10 orders of lo mein. Photo: Page from American Born Chinese

Jugs and Capes paired American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, with 10 orders of lo mein. Photo: Page from American Born Chinese

Where to Meet

If you’re going to host the group at each other’s apartments, but your place isn’t large enough, or central enough, for your group, you can always “host” at another member’s pad by supplying the snacks. (Everyone else typically brings the beverages, like good dinner party guests.) Mihaly’s group typically meets on weeknights, and the host provides snacks, but not a full meal to keep things simple. Leckert reports that having delicious eats for the club adds to their experience (they meet at 2pm on Sundays, so members are peckish but not expecting a full meal), and that they sometimes create food themes that dovetail with the book. When they read American Born Chinese they went all out and ordered a boatload of lo mein from a local delivery spot.

If the thought of hosting, and serving the small bites or meals that will necessarily come with it does not sound fun to you, you can hold your club at a restaurant or bar instead. One of Kate Hooker’s book clubs meets for brunch at a rotating selection of restaurants. The group is small, just four women in all, so it makes it easy to get a table. And no one is left with the cleanup afterward or has to struggle to concentrate after a long day of work.

Discussions

If you need some prompts, almost every book has a list of suggested topics for book clubs that you can easily Google. The most important thing is to spend some time discussing the book even if not everyone has read it.

If you’re in a club with a group of friends who frequently sideline the book discussion, chances are you’ll see one of them before the meeting and can dive into a more personal conversation then. “I’ll have drinks with one person and she and I will talk about it on our own,” said Hooker.

Leckert reported that Jugs and Capes tend to discuss the book for an hour to 90 minutes, with more personal conversations before and after the main event. She also says that the best books tend to be the most controversial, and that there are frequently strongly differing opinions about the read of the month. “When we strongly disagree it’s with respect,” she said. “There are still books I’m very mad that I took the time to read, but no one holds it against me, I don’t think.”

Want to explore the classics? There's a book group for that. Photo: Random House

Want to explore the classics? There’s a book group for that. Photo: Random House

Picking Your Next Book

Most clubs follow a general rule for who gets to pick the next book. Perhaps the host gets to pick, or maybe it goes in an alphabetical order by last name down the list, or whoever draws the shortest straw at the end of the night gets to choose the next read.

You could also organize the selection by genre. One of our readers, Stefanie Jelinski, told us her book club, which has been meeting for over two years now, created a master list of genres they wanted to tackle. They popped it into a spreadsheet, assigned each a number and used the random function to sort them willy nilly (yes, this was hard for us to envision too, so we created a random list here based on hers). For the course of the year, they know in advance the topics that are coming up and at each meeting they can all suggest books within the next month’s category (the winner is chosen by the majority). Even so, said Jelinski, “Sometimes it’s hard to predict when we’ll get to a genre. Sometimes we’re all too busy to get together and we end up skipping a month.” (Proof that a long-running club can withstand a few hiccups.) Their list isn’t the be-all-end-all, either. “We skip genres if we’re just not feeling a certain one,” she said.

Get Together With Strangers Instead of Friends

If you want to really dig into a book’s major themes and motifs, you may have better luck exploring the nuances with a group of readers you don’t know. “A friend group is fun, but you definitely get into more of a literary discussion with strangers,” said Molly Templeton, who organizes one of WORD’s book groups. Most of Brooklyn’s booksellers all offer themed book groups, so you can really focus on your favorite genre or a genre you want to explore more. “I had a huge gap in my classics reading,” said Templeton, so she offered to manage the Classics Book Group a year ago. In this group’s case, Templeton determines the theme and creates the reading list, with input from members in person and on the group’s Facebook page, so you know what you’re signing up to read when you join the group (and can sit out a month when the book isn’t of interest). The discussion has the potential to be even more far-ranging than with friends, precisely because you’re not pooling from the same social circle with similar views. “I don’t know the background of everyone who comes to that group,” said Templeton. “So it’s a great way to get perspective on these books.”

Leckert, on the other hand, said that when she decided to start Jugs and Capes, she specifically wanted to form a group based on her friends, and friends of friends, because she thought they’d be the best people to explore the genre with intelligence and humor. It’s led to a group that is equal parts intellectual and social. “I’d be sad if all we did was drink wine and gossip,” she said. “But I’d also be sad if we only talked about the book–it’s a balance.”

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