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Do We Go to Book Clubs to Meet People or Books?

James Wallace Harris

Staff Writer

James Wallace Harris is a retired computer guy. Jim dreamed of writing science fiction in his social security years, but discovered he loved writing essays more. Life is short and novels are long. He’s written over a thousand essays for his blog Auxiliary Memory. Jim wrote about science fiction for SF Signal before it folded, and now for Worlds Without End. BookRiot gives him the opportunity to write about all the other kinds of books he loves. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read and write, but he never forgets poor Henry Bemis. (Who also found time enough at last, until an evil Twilight Zone fate took it all away.) Twitter: @JimHarris28

When you attend a book club are you going to make friends or hook up with a good book? The other night I rode with a neighbor to our book club. The group discussed Tulipomania by Mike Dash. Well, we discussed it some. We mostly chatted about other things. I left contented but disappointed that the turnout was small. My friend said she was disappointed we didn’t discuss the book more. I told her I thought that was typical for most book clubs. I asked her what she wanted from a book club.

Her answers surprised me. None of them had to do with meeting people. She wanted to go deeper into the book. She said she didn’t read many books but socialized all the time, so she expected book clubs to be about books. I read all the time but got out little. I expect a book club to be about hanging out with bookworms.

This got me to thinking, what makes a great book club meeting? I’m in another face-to-face book club where we have a potluck dinner. We usually don’t discuss the book while eating but wait until after dinner. Quite often we spend more time picking the next month’s book than discussing the current month’s book. I’m quite happy with this arrangement. It feels like a good book club.

Now, my friend has me wondering if I’m wrong. I’m in two online book clubs and we don’t focus on the monthly selection any more than the face-to-face clubs. We socialize via emails. Sometimes we post a lot of emails about the book, but it depends. Some books generate few comments. Because we regularly churn through members I wonder if people leave our club because we don’t totally focus on the book-of-the-month either.

I posted a message to the online group I moderate asking what they wanted from a book club. Most replied hanging out with like-minded readers was fun enough. A few said they like the weekly discussion of what everyone else was reading on their own. One said he liked getting ideas for books to read. No one seemed interested when I asked if they wanted to systematically discuss a book in depth.

I have been in online book clubs where they assign a range of pages to read per week. The discussion during the week has to stay on those pages. I really liked that group when I was reading in sync with the rest. But didn’t like it during times I rushed ahead to finish the book on my own.

The pleasure of deep study comes from everyone being on the same page, and that’s hard to coordinate. I’ve asked my potluck book club if they’d like to discuss our book online during the month so we could examine it more carefully, and maybe have more to talk about when we met, but they declined. Book clubs are about a group read, but it’s very hard to get a group to work together.

My friend said she generally finds more about books from reading Wikipedia than from book clubs. This is true for me too. Often at book clubs, we talk more about what we’ve read about a book than what we thought while reading the book.

My friend brought prints of old paintings of tulips for the Tulipomania discussion and told us how the paintings were made in an assembly-line fashion by artists, each doing a different portion of the tulip. I think she expected the rest of us to do similar research and bring in our own show-and-tell projects. This has happened before at meetings, with people even bringing in paintings off their walls. I do like when that happens, but it’s not common.

How can I be a better book club participant and book club moderator? Most book club members don’t want to feel like they have required homework to turn in. Some people join book clubs to feel compelled to read more, but I don’t know how many want to be literary scholars. I think people who really want to know more about a book go to lectures or even take courses. And because we’re bookworms, we can always study books on our own.

This brings me back to socializing. Bookworms tend to be introverts, so going to book clubs makes us more social. My friend is an extrovert. That might explain her reaction. But are book clubs losing extroverted members because they’re not focusing on the book enough?

I hope Book Riot readers will leave comments about what they want from book clubs – and why.