How To

To Book Club or Not to Book Club?

Rachel Manwill

Staff Writer

Rachel Manwill is an editor, writer, and professional nomad. Twice a year, she runs the #24in48 readathon, during which she does almost no reading. She's always looking for an excuse to recommend a book, whether you ask her for one or not. When she's not ranting about comma usage for her day job as a corporate editor, she's usually got an audiobook in her ears and a puppy in her lap. Blog: A Home Between Pages Twitter: @rachelmanwill

This Sunday, my book club is meeting to discuss A Good American by Alex George over brunch and mimosas. It’s only our third meeting ever, really only the second that involves a book discussion. We started with a simple tweet. One woman said that she wished she were part of a book club, and after a chorus of like-minded tweets, #bookbroads was born. (Yes, we have a hashtag.) We read mostly fiction, though our first book choice was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It generated a good – if not a little over-zealous – conversation, and in the span between that meeting and the next on Sunday, we’ve picked up a few more members.

This is the first book club I’ve really been a part of, not counting one I ran professionally when I worked as a bookseller. It’s not that I never wanted to, but they can be a huge commitment depending on the club and the books. I’ve already got a ton of commitments – full-time job and full-time school, plus several other extracurriculars – and taking part in a book club is one more thing. But is it worth it?

Because I’m a Virgo, i.e. anal retentive as all hell, I’ve put together this handy dandy Pro/Con list to decide if I want to stick with it. But as I’ve only got a meeting or two under my belt, please feel free to add to my lists or dispute any of my assertions. I’m sure some of you are much bigger book club professionals.

Pros (or potential benefits):

  1. Just as with read-a-longs, there’s safety in numbers. Having a group of people that you’re committed to for a book discussion is a little like scheduling workouts with a buddy – it keeps you accountable. Especially if you’re not enjoying a book, or the group chooses something you might not otherwise read, the club can push you beyond your comfort level. Also, if you’re not a prolific reader or you’re going through a reading slump, you at least have one book a month you have to read.
  2. With great power comes great responsibility. If your group functions like mine, everyone brings a few suggestions for the next club choice and we all vote. When your choice gets picked, its both thrilling and a little scary, but it also gives you a great sense of inclusion and participation in the club. Plus its nice to feel like people like your taste.
  3. Reading comprehension? What is this, the SAT? Amazingly, I rarely take notes or mark passages when I’m reading, even if I’m reading a book I need to review. (Maybe this is a comment on my poor reviewing skills…) But when I read for book club, I want to be able to participate, ask detailed questions, have thoughtful responses and express myself more completely beyond nods and shakes of the head. So I take notes and dog-ear pages and underline; my book ends up looking like it went through a war, but I know that books I discussed are books I’ll remember more clearly months or years down the road, whether I liked them or not.
  4. Make new friends, but keep the old… My book club is a great collection of some of my very best friends, acquaintances I knew either just through Twitter or had met in person a few times, and people that I’d never met before. But it all works. We’re a diverse enough group to keep the book choices interesting, but similar enough because we all had a friend or two in common that we have fun together. (Also, being that I am so busy, book club forces me to be social when my propensity is to be hermit-y and stay in to finish other work.)
  • Wine. Or beer. Or mimosas. You get my drift.

    Cons (or potential pitfalls):

    1. What if no one likes the book? Yeah this is a problem. If a book is universally liked, or universally disliked, or there are extreme reactions on both sides of the spectrum, the discussion is usually pretty good and animated. But if everyone is kind of meh about a book, the conversation is DOA. (But then there’s wine, right?)
    2. Who’s the boss? If you’ve got a lot of strong personalities in your group, sometimes the conversation is not equal so much as it’s dominated by one or two voices. If someone in the club interrupts, argues, yells over people, or shoots down other people’s opinions, it can cause a lot of tension and make group members who aren’t as vocal to not want to participate or even drop out. While it would be great if everyone could be civil and take turns, rarely is that the case when people have opinions and loud voices. Not fun for anyone.
    3. No one’s the boss. Or you can have the opposite problem – lots of quiet readers who don’t voluntarily speak up. Just like a book with meh responses, clubbers who don’t easily make themselves heard will be either drowned out by louder voices or if no one initiates the discussion, the club won’t last long. This con, along with the previous one, is more a reflection on your group dynamic, but sometimes inequality of voices can be the death knell of a book club and can lead to some resentful feelings among friends. There’s an argument that this is an inevitable conflict for groups of any kind, and is a book club really worth that animosity? (I know this is an extreme argument, but hey…its valid for some people.)
    4. Oh the guilt. This might just be a smidge of Catholic upbringing speaking, but if the month gets away from you and you can’t finish the book, the guilt of showing up unprepared can be enormous. Especially taking into account the first point under the Pros list. When you’re accountable to other people and you let them down, it can be really easy to just not come or stop coming entirely.
    5. Reading is a solitary pursuit. A former colleague was solidly anti-book club because for her, reading is all about her own enjoyment, and being forced to argue a point or her reasons for liking or not liking a book was like the 7th circle of Hell. Chances are, if you’re this type of person, you’re not going to be in a book club in the first place, but should you discover along the way that you are a solitary reader, no harm, no foul. Just quit the group and tell them exactly why, so they don’t think any of them are to blame. (Unless one of them IS to blame and you need a good excuse.)

    So there you have it. This is, it turns out, a list of my own favorite parts of book club and a list of my concerns about how it can go horribly wrong. Leave your experiences in the comments and we can discuss. I’ll bring the wine.