"Ten Tips for Starting and Running a Successful Book Club

by Rachel Jacobsohn

Author of The Reading Group Handbook
(Hyperion, revised edition, April, 1998)

  1. Do consider friends and/or stranger-acquaintances as candidates. The important criterion is interest in the process. A stranger will not stay one for long. Friendships may strengthen or strain. Even if a group population is diverse, common bonds will be formed.
  2. Do determine your own logistics-wish-list before you begin to organize.  Know the time slot (which day or evening of the month and  frequency) and what type of  books you want to read before the first organizational meeting.
  3. Do consider what atmosphere you desire. Serious/academic/scholarly  or social/therapeutic/bonding. Conscientiously separate the socializing from the discussion.  For example: “House open at 7:00PM for coffee, desert and gossip, discussion begins at 7:30PM “ (One group of moms became dissatisfied because they never ‘got to’ the book so they decided to socialize one month and only discuss the book the alternative month.)
  4. Do agree that  everyone should completely and carefully read the selection before the meeting. Some won’t/can’t. Talk about permitting attendance and/or participation in this case. (In the discussions I facilitate, I  like as many to attend as possible. A non-finisher feels duly chastened and can still ask relevant questions and enter the discussion when it concerns universal themes.)
  5. Do  learn from a  reference librarian how to retrieve author info and the critical reviews from mainstream publications, library publications, the Internet. These can aide a discussion, interject ideas. Pursue research on minute details, such as a book title or a  sign of the zodiac, mentioned in the text; they may offer clues to authorial meaning. A book group offers an opportunity to learn. Consider it an enjoyable form of continuing education.
  6. Do decide on a title selection policy. Examples: Discussion of candidates followed by voting, simple majority winning; hostess gets to pick the book; volunteer member-leader  gets to pick. (The last one is valuable in that the one who picks the book already has desire an enthusiasm for it.) Try a policy for a while; it can always be reevaluated and changed.
  7. Do try to choose titles that 1) stretch your mind, or as I say, “take you places you haven’t been before,” and 2) warrant collaborative discussion. Mainstream “escape” fiction that is formulaic (written with a facile fill-in-the-blank formula) does not lend itself well to in-depth quality discussions. If you have trouble choosing, start with prize winners. (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, Before Christopher Columbus Award, Nebula and Hugo [science fiction awards], The Firecracker Alternate Book Award []) Try reading banned books or those that special interest groups are crusading to have banned. (Your librarian can give you a list.) Use the specially selected, tried-and-true titles in Reading Group Choices, 1998
  8. Do be spontaneous in your discussions. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to get her/his two cents in. Speak up. And listen to others! (I can comment on listening skills if I hear you ask for them.)
  9. Do avoid a collapse or lapse in discussion.
  10. Suggestions:
    • Each person formulate three questions and/or three specific passages to discuss.
    • Do not ask, “So, did you like the book?” Do ask, “What was your reading experience?” 
    • Turn statements into provocative questions that probe and stimulate discussion.
    • Differentiate intellectual for emotional responses.( I call it The NECK Syndrome. Is the author evoking a cerebral response, making you think, or is she/he evoking a visceral response in which your heart piunds, adrenalin soars, and you swoon or weep or gasp for air? Does your response emanate from above, or below, the neck?)
    • Discuss (among the many things that there are to discuss)  language, narrative voice, character development, plot development, author’s vision/intent, mood and setting.
    • Read passages out loud to hear the voices and the language; this can be illuminating.
    • Formulate questions that do not have ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Accumulate possible answers to questions concerning charaters’ behavior motivation. The sheer number of these attest to the depiction in literature of  the mysterious and complex human experience.
  11. Do remember and respect the theory that there is no right or wrong in the art of  literary interpretation. For literary analysis, your opinion(s) should be based on detail(s) from the text. For social comeraderie, allow the text to project your persona. Avoid pomposity and didacticism. (Leave you egos at home! Break up fist fights!) Have fun engaging in the process of shared exploration. And be careful. Group grope can be addictive! Enjoy!

Property of the Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders. This may not be recorded, reproduced, or reprinted in any way without express written consent of  Rachel Jacobsohn at ABGRL  P.O. Box 885 Highland Park, IL 60035; e-mail:  ABGRL is a cooperative information clearinghouse for avid readers, individuals and those in book groups. Publication Reverberations, three times a year.  Annual membership $18; $25 outside of US (US funds please).