Tuesday, August 5, 2008

How to Start a Book Club

Be forewarned: this is not one of those how-tos in "five easy steps." I won't even begin to explain my unique relationship to Sandy, my cousin I discovered in line for lunch in Chicago several years ago at the NCTE conference. Suffice it to say that kindred spirits with blood kinship found each other by pure serendipity. Since then, we've either run into one another or communicated online. We are both guardians of the puzzle pieces of family history, and we've had such fun putting them together.

This week Sandy wrote to ask me about how I started my book club. I remember asking lots of questions before starting my group several years ago. I learned then what I pass along to Sandy: there are so many right ways to begin. All my life, I've had friendships whose core involved a mutual love of books. As much as I love to lose myself in a good book, I love even more talking about a good book with someone who's read the same book. It doesn't take a club.

A few years ago, I encouraged a cross-section of friends to meet and discuss beginning a book group. We had dinner, decided our first book would be the Big Read promoted by the Charlotte Observer, Josephine Humphrey's Nowhere on Earth. The members primarily had one thing in common, beyond a love of reading: most of them were my friends. Over the next several years, we continued to meet, ideally once a month, sometimes in our homes, and other times at restaurants, particularly when the cuisine suited the book's theme or setting.

Our membership also changed as our lives became complicated. We tried to be inclusive, but we found that if we weren't careful, we'd acquire social members less interested in books that meals (or wine). We never made finishing the book mandatory. Sometimes someone would just show up, listen, and read (or finish) the book later.

We choose our books without any real plan either. Some of us usually come with several suggestions. I read the book section of the Sunday newspaper before anything else. I am a member of book clubs (Quality Paperback and Lemuria First Editions right now) not only for the chance to order books but because I come across the best titles that way. Others bring in titles they heard discussed on NPR or the morning news shows. One member's husband tips us off on some of our best choices. Sometimes, we meet and go to a bookstore afterwards to find (and purchase) our next book.

Occasionally, our numbers have dwindled, and the small number of us who kept meeting couldn't settle for just one book. One month we chose three. The most important quality of members is a love for books and a respect for the other readers. We are sometimes book snobs. (We would never, for example, choose a romance novel or something by James Patterson for discussion.)

Even our meetings are a little loosey-goosey. I usually find good reading group questions online and pick the ones I think will best stimulate conversation. Some of us arrive with our favorite passages marked. We also bring our unanswered questions about the books. Sometimes one of the members will research the author, the setting, or the historical period and share that knowledge. We sometimes plan menus to match the book. (For example, when we read Plum Wine, I had the authentic Japanese restaurant prepare our meal.)

Some of the best discussions can develop about a book that some of the members arriving saying they didn't like. (I found the same true when teaching high school literature. A good discussion requires a little passion, but it doesn't always have to be love.) Our group seems to lean toward historical fiction. We like reading about parts of the world less familiar to us.

What I enjoy best is the commitment to read a book because someone else expects me to arrive prepared. (Funny how that didn't motivate me in quite the same way in the eleventh grade, when I intentionally waited to finish The Scarlet Letter until after the test.) I have found lots of books, articles, and websites devoted to book club possibilities. The real secret is just to start something and to let it happen. Set a time that works for most, and then go with it.

I suggest keeping a record of the books you read together. Being able to look back after a few years has been so rewarding. Occasionally, we compare our reading list to other "best book club books" suggestions. We have a good batting average, if I do say so. I know some people who've succeeded with online book clubs, an idea with lots of potential. Anything to let me talk books with people I enjoy is a great proposition as far as I'm concerned.


Cerrillos Sandy said...

Nancy, my dear cuz, do you know what my first reaction to your post was? Tears! Yes, tears of joy because you'd write about my question and mention me in your explanation. Here I am, trying to get on the road to Albuquerque . . . only 50 miles . . . to do, of all things, geometry inservice (now, you quit laughing! Maybe the lone teacher will be fooled by all of my pretend math expertise. I doubt it!), when I found your exciting note about Kathryn Stripling Byer in your email. My quick look at my inbox has turned into a great read on your blog and now a reply. Thanks so much, Nancy, for the book club suggestions. As I read your post, I began to list the first members from out here in our neighborhood. I use the term "neighborhood" loosely, you realize. Anyone within a ten-mile radius (now that sounds a bit math-y, doesn't it?) is a neighbor! Gotta run . . . geometry's waiting.


Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Nancy, thanks for the post! I'd like to suggest that your club consider a book of poetry at least once a year. Please, pretty please! I can make give recommendations.
I hope Sandy gets safely to Albuquerque. I'd love to be heading to New Mexico myself.

JLC said...

Thanks to Kathryn Stripling Byer, I happened on you and this blog. Whatever else the Net has done, it's made serendipity a word no one has to look up in the dictionary any more. I can only say I wish I were close enough to you (geographically) to belong to your book club. There must be more than 20 where I live, and I've been asked to speak at four of them. Only one would meet the criteria you cite (and which are essential to me), and they meet when I can't manage to go. I'd also like to second Ms. Byer's suggestion of a poetry book from time to time. I, for one, need all the education I can get in that realm.
I have to hope you want to know why I was asked to speak at a book club, and I have to tell you whether you want to or not: I have a novel in print. They wanted me to talk about it. In all cases, it was only because someone in the club knew me that I was invited. Our local bookstore will have nothing to do with it (including refusing to order it for patrons who asked), it's POD from a small "indie," the printing is in Amazon's hands, and it looks unlikely ever to sell 100 copies. In its defense I can honestly say that people I trust have expressed admiration for it. So, once Glenda Beal convinced me I had to have a blog, I started one, and of course began to read others diligently. Yours is now on my list of feeds.
If you're willing, take a look at some of the links on www.netwestwriters.blogspot.com, which is where I first met Kathryn, so to speak. And if you will, say more about book clubs on line, though I sometimes think my fingers will be grafted to the keyboard some days!