No Shelf Control: How to Start a Successful Book Club

Three years ago this month, a couple of friends and I started a book club. We started strong with Becoming by Michelle Obama and I’m happy to report that we’ve been meeting monthly ever since. As a lifelong reader, it’s astonishing to me that I’d never been in a real-life in-person book club before this one. This is my first ever in-person group and it has exceeded my expectations! Of the original group, five out of six of us are still actively meeting, even though one woman lives in New Orleans and another Zooms in from Denver; the seventh person moved to France, so we give her a pass! Bookclub is one of the highlights of my month. I absolutely love meeting with women who are passionate about reading and talking about books. I love that our thoughts don’t always align and that we can respectfully disagree. I love that we really are committed to talking about the book we’re reading and while we have a general idea of the major things going on in each other’s lives, we don’t spend much time on random topics. Our book club has seen each other through multiple pregnancies and births, the death of loved ones, job changes, big moves, a cancer diagnosis, house floods, and a global pandemic. Whew! It’s been a constant in all of our lives and kept our reading hobby intact. So, how have we done this? A few thoughts:

We are exclusive.

Ok, so this part of the book club actually pains me because, in every other part of my life, I am an inclusive person. But, I’ve found that if you want your book club to remain consistent, you cannot keep adding people. People’s schedules are full and working around the calendars of nine people is a challenge already. I like our current size and we probably won’t want to add anyone for the foreseeable future. Since the original group, we have only added five people, four of whom have stayed. You might be thinking that it would be fine to have a bigger book club because you could just set a date and whoever can come can come. But part of the magic is having the same people month after month. We learn each other’s tastes in the plot, writing styles, and authors. We learn what subject matters are triggering, what we don’t care as much about, and what is important to us in reading.

We have some guidelines (rules).

Our loose rule, that I try to enforce, is that if you don’t come to book club, you can’t suggest a book for the next month. We allow three to four suggestions for the next read and then we vote on it via our Groupme chat. We make sure to choose something that no one else has read. Last year we decided to add themes to each month, leaving a couple free. We have themes like Black History in February, Romance in June, and Spooky in October. We’ve enjoyed having this bit of structure which lends itself to a diverse selection overall.

Our focus is the book we’re reading.

This should be obvious, but I’ve heard tell of bookclubs where people spend the whole time chit-chatting and only talk about the book for a few minutes. This is appalling to me! When we gather, we spend a few minutes catching up, then we jump in. Often we will google questions about the book to help get the conversation going. We spend a bit of time discussing other books we’ve read the last month and a lot of conversation at the end goes towards what we will read next.

Location is key.

We’ve tried a variety of locations over the past three years, but I think my favorite is when we meet in someone’s backyard. A restaurant is too loud while a backyard feels relaxed. Someone usually brings a bottle of wine and others bring snacks or dessert. When we read a book about an Indian family, Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, we ordered naan and biriyani and butter chicken, marveling over the flavors as we chatted about characters and plot lines. Last October, we had a perfectly spooky time roasting marshmallows on a very windy night. I kept looking over my shoulder as we discussed The Silent Patient.

We read a wide variety of books!

We’ve read a collection of short stories, The Office of Historical Corrections, works of contemporary literature, classics, a thriller, and a few nonfiction books as well. We’ve read books we all disliked like Landline by Rainbow Rowell, books we had differing opinions on like Little Women and Hillbilly Elegy, and books we all loved like A Gentleman in Moscow and Where the Crawdads Sing.

The real magic of book club is the range of people we have in our group: a variety of different cultural backgrounds, occupations, marital status, life stages, and belief systems make us a crew of people whose eyes are opened to other ways of thinking about the world as we discuss our common passion: books.


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