Lifestyle | Social Skills

Ten Keys to Starting a Fun, Successful Book Club

Ten years ago, my close friend had a bright idea to start a book group, and it didn’t take too long to convince me. I had been in a book group with my husband before we had children, and although I enjoyed it, I had to shout to be heard. (It was a coed group, and the men were the most vocal.) I knew I wanted to create a book group that was the polar opposite of that one.

My book group has evolved over the years, but three out of the original eight women are still around. We’ve also endured some drama over the years, and we actually had to kick one person out! (More on that below.) Here are my ten keys for a fun, successful book group:

1. Choose your members wisely

Invite people whose company you truly enjoy and who are intellectually interested and emotionally connected. My friend and I each selected three women friends who were fun, vivacious readers and fully interested in engaging in lively conversation. We looked for people who would not hog the conversation or be pushy. We let potential members know we were looking for a regular commitment to the book group.

If you don’t know enough potential members, consider putting out an appeal on Facebook or Next Door. Think about what characteristics you’d like for your group, and perhaps individually interview them before having them join.

2. Host a kick-off gathering to hammer out the details

On the first evening, we gathered, we discussed the following:

  • Personal introductions (name, hometown, family, occupation, hobbies, favorite types of books)
  • What each person hoped to get out of the group
  • Previous experiences with book clubs, positive and negative
  • Frequency and time and place of meeting
  • Should we have food and beverages?
  • How large should we be?
  • What to do if someone hasn’t read the book?

Everyone made fun of me that first night because I arrived with a list of questions for us to discuss. I like to approach such things in an organized way.

3. Determine how you’ll select the books

From the beginning, we wanted book selection to be a democratic process. In my loud coed book group, the loudest people had their books chosen. In some book groups, one person ends up choosing all the books. Over the years, we’ve settled on this fair approach.

We designate one meeting each year for book selection. Sometimes it’s our holiday book swap evening. Each person comes with two or three book choices, either the actual books or paragraph summaries. We discuss each book and decide which ones are the most interesting. We like to balance fiction with nonfiction and include some variety.

This year we chose our first poetry book. We also read at least one or two books about race or social issues each year, in addition to occasional classics. Each person gets two of their books chosen for the year.

4. Decide on a regular date

For years and years, my book club met on the third Thursday of each month. We shifted dates when one member acquired a work commitment that evening. I recommend choosing a consistent day of the month and time to meet and doing everything you can to stick with it. We have an unwritten agreement that if one member notifies us at least one week ahead, we will try to reschedule so she can make it.

5. Make an annual schedule

One person creates a spreadsheet with the book selected for each month, length, and publication date, whether it’s available at the library, who will be hosting, and birthdays. The person who chose that month’s book leads the discussion, and anyone with a birthday that month is exempt from hosting. We alternate fiction and nonfiction as much as possible, and we also try to mix up book lengths or stay away from longer books on shorter or holiday months.

6. Agree to make book group a priority

Book groups are most successful when every member chooses to make it a priority. That means setting the date aside from other activities and committing to making it if possible. When hosting a book group, it means asking your partner and kids to vacate the book group meeting area and stay quiet. Members should commit to refraining from phone calls and focusing on each other. The host sends out a reminder a few days before the meeting with details about the food and her address.

7. Determine your ideal size and process for inviting new members

Although we started with eight members, some of our members gradually dropped out, and new ones joined. Some people left because of life transitions, or in one case, one woman was more interested in a serious book discussion and didn’t want the socializing. The group’s size might get more important as the book group proceeds because you’ll form close relationships, and it won’t always be an ideal time to grow. It’s critical that every member of the group be comfortable about when to add members, which leads to #8…

8. Decide how you will deal with conflict

Several years ago, one of our members wanted to invite a new person to the book group. I’ll call her Ann. Ann asked if that was okay, but most of us agreed it would be best to wait several months before adding new members. We discovered that Ann had already asked her friend and could not accept our decision. Ann worked with one of our members, and she directed a full-scale temper tantrum, including f-bombs, to the other member in a highly public work area. Ann also contacted the rest of us individually to try to sow dissent. We agreed that Ann’s behavior was unacceptable, so we told her she should take a break. In other words, she was not welcome to come back. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions to protect the whole group.

9. When the time comes, define a process for expanding your group

A few years ago, we had shrunk a bit, so we decided to add some new members. A few of us had some ideas for potential members, and we discussed how they would fit in with the group. We developed a list of questions, and informally interviewed them one on one. Our two newer group members have added a huge amount of new positive energy to the group! Growing the group requires a certain amount of trust and risk, but it has changed our group for the better.

10. Celebrate whenever and wherever you can

Celebrations have become a core feature of our book group, which we are truly missing right now during the pandemic. We celebrate each person’s birthday with a fun dessert, a birthday song, and cards. For the December holidays, we do a Yankee Swap book exchange. Even though we are all well-read and have similar interests, we always end up with books we have not read.

We’ve celebrated divorces, milestone birthdays, graduate school completions, and new relationships. We’ve supported each other through relationship breakups, illnesses, surgeries, and deaths in our families. Several people in my book group have even seen the same therapist! We have taken overnight trips together where we stay up late at night, drinking wine and playing games. We have formed deep bonds through meeting regularly once a month, sharing intimate details about our lives.

As book groups evolve and you get to know each other better, you’ll discover when to make new rules or guidelines. For example, we discovered that our social conversation tended to go on, and we wouldn’t start discussing the book until late. So we agreed we’d start discussing the book one hour into the meeting.

And a note for these pandemic times…

Of all the regular activities I’m missing during the pandemic, meeting in person with my book group is high on the list. As a result, we have struggled to keep our routines. Some of our members are having a hard time concentrating on reading, while others are reading more than ever. Even people who nearly always finish the selected book have not been able to do so.

We’ve continued to meet monthly on Zoom, and one time we met in a park, socially distanced. During one meeting, a member led us through a women’s literary quiz. We’re still attempting to read our books, but our consistency has definitely suffered. But even while we cannot meet in person, we have a highly active text group chain with constant texts throughout the week on a variety of topics. Recently, politics features prominently in our text discussions.

If you can find some loyal readers, there’s no better time to start a book group! Some people are craving more connection, even if it has to happen on Zoom for now. Why not consider an interstate or cross-country book group? Take advantage of the ability to meet online across the miles.

Whatever you do, have fun and enjoy talking about your favorite books!

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