I was prompted to write this post last week when my friend, D, asked me to ‘book club’ A Promised Land (though I generally read novels and was wary of what I suspected to be eight hundred pages of neoliberal propaganda, I decided to take a dive. So far so good!). What struck me was what it meant to ‘book club’ it.
Reading something together is fun. Though with its flaws, it’s nice when the people one spends time with have consumed the same pieces of media. They provide a framework for understanding some things and a background for many references and jokes. Sometimes, it leads to reading something outside of one’s usual pool. Most importantly, it’s gratifying to share something enjoyable with a friend. But these all apply to book recommendations and book clubs equally.
The difference in between the two then, is that in a book club, all parties are reading the book simultaneously. D didn’t read A Promised Land yet, and so he couldn’t form an opinion of it before recommending it. But perhaps, as the most hotly anticipated book of 2020, it was important to beat the metaphorical crowd in not only recommending it, but being able to form an opinion of it, and discuss this while reading the book.
Thus, asking to book club a book creates stronger impetus to read it, and the book can no longer be relegated to “I’ll add it to the list”. If at all, the book is to be read immediately, with no compromises. After starting, this sort of compelling urgency persists, because both parties ideally read at the same pace in order to have meaningful discussion: plot holes and problems that may or may not be filled, what happens next, and anything else that might seem significant fresh, but might be forgettable after reading.
This way, I start and finish reading books that I wouldn’t otherwise have interest in, some examples being memoirs, epic poetry, and Stephen King thrillers. Furthermore, I don’t want to fall behind on reading and constrain the other people in the club, providing further motivation to read, and at a good pace.
Motivation to read new books is reason enough to ‘book club’ something, but the benefits are compounded by discussion. Reading is a classic solitary exercise enjoyed by the schoolyard nerd. Even when done in the company of others at a cafe, library, or beach, it is still a quiet activity, with each reading their own material. Reading a book at the same time as someone else while sharing thoughts and ideas not only increases enjoyment of the text, but improves comprehension through the introduction of new ideas and perspectives.
After thorough discussion, the book becomes a shared experience of sorts, from a solitary hike up a mountain to a hike up a mountain with a partner. Two people who have separately hiked up the same mountain before will be able to reminisce about the same obstacles and lookouts, but two people who have hiked up the mountain together are able to fondly recall the challenges they faced and the moments of serenity at the top. They’ll have helped each other along, complemented each other’s strengths, and shared observations. Not only did they get to know the mountain, but they also learned more about one another.
Wow, you say, I’m sold. Where do I join a book club? I have no idea. I’ve been fortunate enough to have literate friends, and have started four informal book clubs with varying degrees of success since the start of college (I still see myself mentally as a new grad). The first didn’t convene even once and the second convened just once, both started with my classmates. The third was with my immediate family, and we’re currently wrapping up our eleventh book. The fourth was with a single other friend, and though we dropped it around four books in, we’re picking it in the coming year.
These experiences have shown that the single most important factor to the longevity of a book club is accountability. People need to read thoughtfully and on schedule. Consequently, the number of people need to be kept low enough where everyone feels accountable, and that their voices will be heard in a discussion.
With two people for example, it is immediately obvious if someone hasn’t done their share of the reading and the person who has won’t be able to realize the pooled benefits of the book club either. Ideally, this is balanced with a diversity of opinion; the more people there are, the higher the chance that there will be more ideas floating around. The ideal number, varying based on the maturity of members and the length of material compared to the length of meeting, is four to five.
To further enhance accountability, a consistent schedule is key. Meetings should occur at a consistent pace, with a consistent amount of reading required. This is especially important in the first few meetings to establish this routine. There can obviously be exceptions, but it’s imperative that the meeting isn’t brushed aside for a bi-annual visit to the dentist.
During the meetings, discussion might flow naturally, but it also might not. Mindful reading of the book club material combined with note taking is generally enough to lit the conversation. If there is an organizer, they should come prepared with a few talking points to start things off and reignite the discussion if necessary.
And that’s it. If all the members are equally committed to reading the book and discussing it, and early structure will create habits that everyone will carry forward. By the time the first book is done and the second book is chosen (by a different member), they can become the one leading discussions for their book. Happy book clubbing.
This week’s post was one lapse of judgement away from becoming a listicle. Three reasons why book clubs are awesome and three ways to start one! Fortunately, I’m more pretentious than the The New Yorker editor who let this one through, so I stayed up all night writing this and preserved the integrity of my blog. Happy New Year all, and to the success of all your book clubs in 2021.