8 Rules for a Great Book Club

8 Rules for a Great Book Club

It’s been over four years since I started my book club, and may I say that it has been a raving success? We meet again tonight, and I am giddy with excitement. My son wanted to move into his new place today, and I put him off until tomorrow. It’s Book Club night. Duh.

Book Club is rewarding because—one, it’s reassuring to know that other book nerds exist; I’m not the only one who stays up at night worrying about characters and going through tissue boxes. Two, it’s beneficial: it has all the discussion and dissection that makes a literature class fun, but without the right-and-wrong answers or a research paper.

Yes, everyone in my book club has been a teacher at some point, but your book club will fill with people just like you, who are far less geeky than me. Caveat: invite people carefully. If you just want a social club, then invite friends nilly-willy. But if you want to read and discuss, choose appropriately. Have a few conversations about your favorite books with some people you’d like to see every month and note their reactions. Book Club peeps are obvious.

Needless to say, I have many friends whom I love, but they do not belong to my book club. I go shopping or to lunch with them, but we never discuss books.

This prompts me to share 8 rules for making a great book club. These suggestions will set you on course to establishing and enjoying your very own book discussions.

  1. Decide what your highest priority is. Mine began as a desire to read and discuss one book per month. It has also morphed into a general encouragement of the creative process. My book club is a monthly reunion for kindred spirits. I suggest forming a group around a single purpose and letting it grow from there. People, like literature, are deep and soulful. They will thrive if you feed them.
  2. Choose a regular time. Changing dates make Book Club hard to remember. My book club generally meets on the last Sunday of every month, beginning between 6 or 7 (depends if we’re having dinner together). We program our DVRs to tape whatever is on PBS, and we descend on the designated location with books and journals in hand.
  3. In my opinion, this is a necessary part of every social gathering. Drink coffee, have dessert. Eat tofu, if you have to. Eating settles people and creates an environment conducive for sharing. Sometimes, we have dinner with Book Club. We often pair our food with the book we’re reading. Light British fiction: tea and crumpets. Non-fiction creative process: art museum.
  4. Change locations. We rotate houses, meet at restaurants, libraries, books stores, parks. Whatever fits with the book we’re reading and the month we’re in. Tonight we’re picnicking in the park for our July book, The Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle’s memoir about finding peaceful, outside spaces to nurture her spirit.
  5. Plan an activity that goes with the book. We read C.S. Lewis’ memoir of his path to faith and mapped our own personal journeys. We gave ourselves facials while discussing Till We Have Faces (another Lewis). We took a quiz once on the plots and characters from our year’s worth of books. (Remember, we’re all teachers—that’s fun for us.)
  6. Develop a plan for choosing books. This is a hard one. We started by making yearly plans, but we found that we changed it almost monthly because we were constantly walking into bookstores or getting new recommendations from people. Now we try to choose our books quarterly, usually alternating between fiction and non-fiction. Also, on the very first night, we decided the genres we wanted to read and not read, so as to avoid uncomfortable conversations or reading books we all hated. (We chose no light romance, no erotica, no science fiction, no war, etc.) After 4 years of choosing books together, we have a pretty good success rate; at least, we can usually predict the books everyone will like.
  7. Value equal sharing time. We have let sharing develop naturally. In every group, some people talk more than others. If someone is bursting with conversation (good or bad), we usually let her begin the discussion. But as a general rule, we start with the person who recommended it and go around the table or room so that each person has the floor at some point during the night. Then, of course, we comment on everyone’s comments, and we talk over one another. But our goal is to respect time and opinion equally, and we succeed most of the time.
  8. Do outings and retreats. We’ve read Shakespeare and gone to see the play at the Shakespearean theater. We’ve spent the weekend in a state park and honed our creativity through hiking, drawing, and talking. I’m picturing (and hoping) that author vacations are in our future. By that I mean a trip to England to visit the homes of Austen, Tolkien, Lewis, Dickens, Shakespeare, Browning, and Beatrix Potter. (Actually, there’s so many more!) Or a New England weekend in autumn to visit Alcott, Irving, Thoreau, and Frost. These are long-shots now, but Book Club has taught me to dream creatively.

A book club is like anything else you start—it will exceed your expectations if you let it grow and breathe on its own. Make it a safe place to express opinion and share secrets. Make it a place where everyone is right and nothing has to be solved. Make it a place where people grow—where they leave better than they were when they arrived, not from the book necessarily, but from the whole experience.

Book Club is its own little fantasy world.