How to Start a Book Club: Choosing your Selections and Leading Discussion
Book Clubs and the introverts they attract
Now that we’ve covered the brainstorming and administrative tasks needed to give your fledgling book club momentum, you are finally ready to lead a discussion. This is absolutely the most daunting part of leading a book group, but it is also the most rewarding. Many of us bookworms tend to be introverted, making the actual task of discussing a book somewhat unnatural for us (even though it’s an experience we really value and want to have for ourselves).
I remember back when I joined my first book group in Chicago, I devoured the assigned selection and spent a good deal of time contemplating its deeper meaning. But when discussion day finally rolled around, I was so nervous about meeting the new group for the first time that I almost missed the opportunity. My husband had to lovingly coax me out the door and into the café where the group was meeting. I was so glad I attended! I made my first few friends in that new city. In fact, I was so hooked on the book group after just three meetings that when I moved back to Ann Arbor, I was ready to begin the scary task of starting my very own book club. Again, another rewarding experience!
A book group is actually an amazing catalyst for helping us to pull away from our introverted tendencies. Though I still wouldn’t call myself a 100 percent people-person, I have come quite far in my level of comfort and grace in social settings. This is just one more thing that book groups can do for you—it’s not just about getting a closer look at an intriguing read, a book club can also foster personal growth!
Choosing a reading selection
Now that I have snuck in one final promotional plug for book groups, let’s talk about the various ways in which you and your club can decide on a reading selection. Many groups approach the decision by allowing one member to have the dictator-like power of assigning a title. Sometimes, the leader of the club picks the book every single time. Other times, there is a rotation of all or a few members who take turns christening the chosen one. These methods are the simplest and most straight-forward; however, they don’t work very well for larger groups.
I much prefer to have group input on a majority of the decisions. Ann Arbor Classics Book Group actually has a poll on its website, where members are encouraged to rate the five possible selections according to desirability. After one month, the winner is announced and a new poll is erected. This method works well for our group, since it effectively incorporates the opinions of as many members who would like to voice them. A rotation-of-dictators strategy would never work for a book group with more than 200 members like AACBG!
If you don’t have access to a custom website for your book group or you find polling to be too much work, you have another option for collective decision making. Ask members to think about what book they would like the group to read and to come to discussion with a short plug for it. After you have finished discussing the current selection, you can open the floor to anyone who would like to recommend your selection for next time. One by one, interested members can talk about their nomination and why it would be a good fit for the group. Your group can then discuss the several options and come to a decision this way. One drawback to this method is the fact that you will only be able to make your selections one meeting before they come-up for discussion; whereas, other methods allow you to announce the upcoming selections further in advance, giving members more time to obtain copies and to read them. Another setback is the fact that only members who are present at the meetings can have any say about what the group should read next time.
Now let’s talk about actually leading a book club discussion. This task could require a lot of work on your part or very little, depending on the size and initiative of the other members in your club. It helps to do some research before group to determine possible discussion topics, to learn more about the genre and setting of the book and to find any other possible fodder for conversation (like film tie-ins to the novel, interesting tidbits about the author, and so on). You can, of course, take notes while you are reading the selection, if this is natural and easy for you. I find that simply reflecting on our novel-of-choice, while driving to discussion, is all of the contemplation I need prior to club. A simple Google search of the title of your selection plus “book club discussion” or “discussion questions” will turn up many helpful resources that are good to have on hand. Sites like SparkNotes and CliffNotes also provide useful information regarding story summaries, character analyses and an overview of the story’s various themes, symbols and motifs.
Once you formally begin discussion, it can be helpful to ask your group who all read the novel in its entirety. If only a few were able to finish the novel, this may hint that the selection choice was too complicated or not interesting enough—facts which will definitely shape the flow of conversation. The next question to ask is who all liked the novel. This query will definitely spur your members on. Those who had strong feelings, one way or the other, will be quick to announce why this is their new favorite book or why reading it is akin to a human rights violation.
As the discussion builds, you—the leader—will have to police it just a bit. It is important to make sure that the club stays on topic and that one or two people don’t dominate the entire conversation. It can be uncomfortable to cut off a speaker who is passionately talking about PETA in your discussion of “Animal Farm”, but it’s much worse to let her drone on and scare off other members of your group with her harangue. Similarly, a book group is a collective discourse, not a lecture that the whole of your group has to endure if one person just doesn’t know how to share the floor. I find that it helps to make an announcement before the discussion begins in order to inform your group of these rules and the fact that violators of these rules will be politely cut off so others can have a turn or to assist the group in staying on topic. Members will appreciate your matter-of-factness—they have, after all, come with the primary intention of discussing the book.
Let discussion take its natural course, interjecting now and then to maintain harmony or to offer up some food-for-thought. If the group is having a difficult time self-directing, you can interpose with one of the discussion questions you thought of (or located online) prior to discussion. When the discussion ends, it’s fun to encourage members to stay on and to have non-book conversations. This helps you get to know each other better outside of this particular shared interest and makes it easier for everyone to stay on topic while discussion is in session.
With a little bit of work and a lot of passion, you too can lead a successful and satisfying book club. I hope you have enjoyed this series of articles and that you will not hesitate to contact me should you have any more questions about starting or joining a book group.