On Book Clubs

Almost two years ago, I joined a Twitter-based book club called #1book140. Last year, a couple friends and I decided to start a book club of our own. So last month, when some coworkers started looking around for people who might want to form a club, I sensibly said I couldn’t. But I decided to try this month, and that’s how I’ve found myself way behind on three books at the same time. So I think it’s a good time to talk about book clubs.

I’ve enjoyed being in these clubs a lot. Though reading is normally a solitary experience, I like to discuss it. (I’m sure that’s related to the reason I write this blog.) It’s also good for me to have some sort of goals and structure to drive my hobbies: Last year, I read more books than any other time in my adulthood, and I credit my book clubs with giving me motivation. Normally, comics take up a lot of my reading time instead, largely because they come out on a weekly schedule, so there’s a constant feed to keep up with. I’m not trying to judge whether books are better or worse than comics, but the switch in focus has definitely worked well for me.

In fact, one of the first things I tell people about book clubs is that it’s a lot more fun to read books I don’t like if I get to tell people why afterwards. I do really appreciate the fact that these clubs have introduced me to a wider variety of books, but it’s simply the ability to share that I find best. Actually, that exposure to different categories has pros and cons, since I’m a little more likely to find books I don’t like that way. I definitely do enjoy the variety, and I’m glad that it pulls me away from the science fiction and fantasy that would otherwise be my default, but this variety is something to be careful with. I often have to read three books in a month just to find time for one of my own choosing, which means my personal to-read pile is getting dangerously high. There were novels I was eager to read a year ago still sitting on top of the stack!

The positives far outweigh the negatives, though, or I wouldn’t still be doing it. I’ve also enjoyed the very different experiences of the real-world and Twitter clubs. My Twitter one discusses general business on the #1book140 hashtag, and individual sections of the current book on tags named #1b140_1, #1b140_2, and so on. There’s a nominal schedule for the sections, but the separate tags let you join in at whatever time works. This means that the conversation is ongoing. It also means that sometimes people are saying things like “I really wonder what happens next!”, which sounds a little silly when they could just read another chapter to find out. But when I join my monthly group in-person, where we all finish the book before discussing, sometimes I wish we’d had the chance to talk back when we still had more questions than answers. It just goes to show how different one group can be from another.

If you’re considering starting your own book club, here are a few tips I’ve picked up:

  • I recommend voting on the choice every month. We do let people take turns choosing the nominees, but I think it helps a lot that everyone gets some input each time. For a small group, you probably won’t have any bitter arguments about this, but it will guarantee that if someone is strongly against one choice they get a chance to steer the group to a different one.
  • My local group spent some time early on trying to figure out ground rules. Should someone be considered a full member right away, or do they need to show up a certain number of times before they can vote or nominate titles? The answer turned out to be much simpler than we expected: About three-quarters of the people who expressed interest never showed up to a single meeting. Of those who did come once, almost every one turned out to be a dedicated member. So now, as soon as someone reads a book and joins a meeting, we just assume they’re a full-fledged member.
  • Don’t feel bad about skipping books from time to time. Everyone needs to find their own balance between book club books and ones they picked out themselves, and as I said earlier, I have to struggle to keep up with the ones I already bought. I probably participate nine or ten of the months each year for #1book140, and the work club will definitely be a sporadic thing for me.
  • Most of all, enjoy it! Book clubs fit a social role much like going out to see a movie, but everyone actually interacts with each other instead of just sitting in the dark. It’s a good experience.
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