The Art of Picking Books for a Book Club

Anyone who has excitedly started their own book club, managed to have everyone read some Oprah-popular book, only to have the whole thing fall apart before it was time to pick book #2 knows my pain. A book club requires a very delicate balance. It’s walking the fine line of personalities, scheduling, discussion questions, and Pinot Grigio versus Merlot.

But the book club wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for… books. So, it could be argued that book selection can make or break a book club. It’s a difficult middle ground to obtain. You need something that will inspire interesting discussion, but nothing that will result in black eyes. You need something that will appeal to a large group, but you want group size manageable so there aren’t just 40 people talking over each other about symbolism. You need something that is widely available and not a book that will send group members scouring estate sales and stalking eBay auctions.

So with the plethora of literary material available to us in the 21st century, how does one decide what your book club will read? How exactly do you pick books for a book club?

  1. Poll the group– Everyone has that book (or 60) they’ve just been dying to read. Give group members a voice by opening the list of books up to them. You’ll find there’s a lot of overlap so you’ll be able to prioritize those books.
  2. Group voting– Once you have a good running list of possible selections, have members vote. You can do this with an online survey, Facebook poll, or in-person. The book that gets the most votes wins, and the runners up can always  be used for upcoming months.
  3. Paperbacks– The book club I’m loyal to has a strict paperback rule. They don’t want to alienate those people who may not be able to dish out $30 every month to participate. And the library usually only has so many copies of books available. So give your book club members an affordable option.
  4. Consider genres– Lots of book clubs that started out as “anything goes” break out into more focused groups. My own book club has introduced a “history” group, featuring historical non-fiction. Be it romance, mystery/thrillers, memoirs, it might be easier to determine what books to read when you start with a genre in mind.
  5. Themes– Especially in this particular political climate, I’m seeing a lot of book clubs focus on books about race, politics, historical figures. If you have something going on locally to you that you think may be on your group member’s minds, give them the space to meditate and discuss these themes in the safety of their beloved book club. Other great options on themes can be based on seasonality (Christmas stories during the holidays, horror during Halloween), authors, events/hobbies, and people (ex: read Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen and then read Circling the Sun by Paula McLain).
  6. Talk to your local indie– Your favorite local bookseller likely has a good idea of the big, buzzy, conversation-inducing reads of the moment.  Stop in and get a better idea of what works are just flying off their shelves (and be sure to purchase a book to thank them for their time).
  7. Keep your ear to the bookish internet– Whether it be Book Riot, a podcast (including All the Books), bookish Twitter, or your favorite blogs, let the people in The Know tell you what readers are really dying to crack open.
  8. Diversity– One of the biggest issues with book clubs is their lack of diversity. For the longest time, the name of the book club game has been suburban middle-aged white women. That is slowly changing, but with that, we have to ensure that we’re being representative in our reading. Even if your club skews highly white female, it’s important for us to build empathy and understanding through our reading. So have them pick up that Ta-Nehisi Coates or that copy of Americanah. Encourage reading outside of our experience in your book group and you’ll foster learning and interest in other cultures.
  9. Delegate, delegate, delegate– A good way to have all members feel involved is to have them select the books. A good way to do this is to assign each member a month and have them solely responsible for deciding what your group will be reading that month. This way everyone feels engaged and involved, and no one can complain that “you never read anything I want to read”!
  10. Read Harder– Use Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge as a guideline for what books your group will be reading. Group members will have fun picking which challenges they want to focus on, and the idea of getting through the complete list each year will motivate and inspire!

But the most important part of book club selection… listen to your members. As long as they feel heard, chances are they’ll be willing to read a book they normally wouldn’t think to pick up on their own. And that’s how we encourage diversity and growth in readers!

How to pick books for a book club- it’s the question for the ages. But hopefully this post gave you a starting point to having an amazing book club experience. But be sure to save a glass of Pinot for me!

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