This past month, our team asked the question, “What makes an effective book group?” Most of us had been part of book groups in various forms throughout our lives, but all of us believed our experiences could have been better. I personally have done well reading a book with one person and getting together to discuss it. Yet, I had never been in a successful group book club, which has been disappointing.
I am excited about starting a new two-year discipleship group with other men called Christian Leadership Concepts, and we are starting to read The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer as the first of twelve books together over a two year period. I am looking forward to learning what makes a good book group.
I do know someone who has enjoyed a lifetime of effective book group experiences. That person is my mother, Barrett Schroeder. I am a reader today because of her encouragement. I decided to interview her to learn what has been most successful for her and her friends.
What do you love about books and when did you fall in love with reading? When did you begin to talk with someone about it?
I have been a reader and book lover from the time I was a toddler. My mother tells how my grandfather Brown would smile to see me coming down the stairs at Brown Shingles (our summer retreat) holding a book and looking around for someone to read to me. My mother, in particular, fed my reading by helping me find books that would hold my attention, and we would talk about them. I read well above my years—the original Little Women by age 10 and Gone with the Wind by age 12. From reading with family, I moved on to friends, with whom I would share books and titles. I just like holding a book, I like the smell of books, even old musty ones. Ebooks probably aren’t for me.
When did you first join a book group? What did you learn in that first group?
I formed my first book group in my early twenties in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn. The group started with four or five neighbors and expanded to include anyone who wanted to join. We moved away from Chicago after five years, but when we visited twenty years later, I found out that the book club was still going. From that group, I learned that not everyone will actually finish the book, but that was okay. I also learned that some of my choices, such as Dostoevsky, were more than most people could handle.
Are there different types of book groups?
Yes! There so many types of book groups and so many to choose from. Our county library has a number of specialty groups—history groups (tends to attract more guys), mystery/thriller groups and bestseller groups. The more general book groups I have started or belonged to generally meet once a month. Most have met in rotating houses, with food/drinks provided by the host or hostess. One group I was in met in a room in the back of an ice cream store and now meets in a coffee house. Once a month in the evening seems to work best for most groups, although some of the library groups meet on Saturday afternoon.
How do you select which book(s) to read?
Book selection can be done in many ways:
- Each person brings three book titles and presents them to the group. Votes are taken with one book chosen from each person. In this way, books are chosen many months ahead. This is good organization-wise, but there needs to be flexibility if someone discovers a book that everyone simply must read.
- A book reading list is developed from everyone’s suggestions, and then books are agreed upon two or three months in advance.
- The host or hostess for the month picks the book for the next month.
- Libraries often have multiple copies of books designed for book clubs. Books can be chosen from that list.
- Some groups have rules about only reading paperbacks; in other words, waiting for a hardcover book to come out in soft cover.
- Some groups I have been in make a point of reading at least one classic a year, one non-fiction book, and even having a poetry-sharing meeting.
- My friend and I want to start a group that reads really good classic women writers, such as Edith Wharton and Willa Cather.
- I personally like groups that pick a few months at a time rather than for an entire year.
What have you called your book clubs?
Book clubs often have names. I can’t remember all the names of the clubs I’ve been in, but one was called Pageturners. My current one is the Haphazard Book Club (this title is because we encourage members to come even if they haven’t read the book; it’s a good social evening, and hearing about the book may encourage them to read it).
What has worked well in your book groups?
Once a month, meet in members’ homes/apartments: socialize, get some food, hear a review (if there is one), discuss the book, and pick a new book if not already chosen. Recently, we did a rather English book called The Keeper of Lost Things. The meeting was at my home on a Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and I put together an English tea with English/Irish cheese, scones, lemon curd, and English biscuits, etc. I usually do things more simply, but we had been stuck in during a snowstorm, so I had time to think about it.
I personally prefer it when someone leads the discussion and does some research before the meeting. My mother’s last book group was formally structured, with the person picking the book doing a formal review. In Haphazard, I am usually the only one who researches, but I find that additional information really helps. For example, when PBS was going to run a new version of Little Women, we chose to revisit that book, and I did a great deal of research about transcendentalism, Alcott’s life, and the places where the family lived. When another group I belonged to did Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, I researched the situations in South Africa during apartheid and learned a great deal myself.
What works is reading a variety of books on different subjects. What does not work: my book club messed up this fall and had three books in a row that in one way or another dealt with abused, uneducated poor people—so depressing that most of us did not read one or more of the books.
Do you have a book of note that was introduced to you that you would never encounter if it weren’t for a book group?
Kent Haruf’s Plainsong (and all his other books, which I have now read). I probably would not have read A Gentleman in Moscow without so many recommendations from people.
What advice would you give someone who is considering getting friends together to start a group?
Talk to a few friends and see if they are interested. Set a time and place to meet and ask them to bring a few suggested titles. Tell the friends to bring friends if they like. How many members do you need? It could be small to start. My current group began with three of us but now has about fifteen members. Meet and pick three months’ worth of readings. Decide whether you will have a formal review, just have someone to put together some discussion questions, or simply wing it. Decide where you will meet, at what time, and whether there will be food and/or drink. Have one person serve as the leader and primary communicator to remind people what book you are reading, where the meeting is, and who is hosting.
Then, just start.