Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Low-Commitment Book Club

In college some friends and I had the idea for a new kind of book club. But before I get into that, the backstory.

I wrote earlier about book clubs, that more people say they want to be in a book club than actually want to be in a book club. I discovered this truth in college. Of course I knew there were crazy people out there who didn't like books; I could understand that they didn't want to be in a book club. But why would people who claim to like books sit out of a book club?

The first book club my friends and I started at college was (mostly) a failure. The few of us who read the book would meet together over breakfast, and our "book club" discussions were often commandeered by friends who hadn't read the book. While the discussion about the book might have gone on uninterrupted for fifteen minutes or so, eventually those who hadn't read the book steered the discussion in a different direction, and the thread tying it to the book was gone. Eventually, book club membership dwindled (and those who were still "members" stopped reading the selections), and it looked like the last light was nearly snuffed out.

In looking at our failure, I tried to identify the reasons why the club was failing. The people involved claimed to like books. They claimed to like discussion. This should be a recipe for success. Yet there was a disconnect.

I've found that readers are protective over their times for reading, especially as these times are scarcer. In college, we were (supposedly) studying, and so pleasure-reading time was hard to come by. While a few of us chose to occupy those hours with a book we could discuss as a group, most others were more interested in reading what they were interested in and were willing to sacrifice companionship. So, first problem: readers want to read what interests them, not what is "scheduled."

There is also a shame factor involved in a book club. Who wants to show up to a book club when they haven't read the book? (Though, admittedly, there were more book club posers than I would have expected.) And if people already have limited time and aren't likely to read the book, what's the likelihood that you'll have enough participants to have a discussion worth having? Thus, the second problem: those who don't read don't attend. Leading to the third problem: low attendance generally results in a worse discussion.

My second semester of my senior year, we tried to evaluate our book club in light of these problems and create a solution, a space where 1) book lovers could read what they want, 2) book lovers would want to be, and 3) book lovers could participate in a good discussion with a minimal time commitment outside of the meeting.

What we came up with was a book enthusiasts club. For each meeting, we'd try to have one person in charge of choosing a very short reading (something that could be read upon arrival, or read aloud once everyone arrived) that we would discuss together. Each person who came would come prepared to talk about any books they were reading for pleasure (or school--we weren't too hard-nosed about this), along with appropriate quotations they wanted to share (this wasn't mandatory). We tried to make the environment welcoming so that anyone who wanted to could join, even if they weren't reading something, and often people did come for the conversation and to hear about what everyone else was reading. This resulted in most of the benefits of a book club without many of the drawbacks. And it was much better attended. Of course, I missed the sustained discussion that a full-length book can yield, but the club seemed to be the right level of compromise. We also met at night at a coffeehouse near campus, which didn't hurt our chances of attendance.

Why am I writing about this? Because almost five years ago, I started a book club based on this philosophy where I work, and it has gone very well. Since I haven't had too many other ideas of what to talk about here, I thought I'd share 1) what makes this book club work (hint: it's not my administration), 2) readings that have worked very well for discussion, 3) ideas for implementing this sort of thing at your place of employment, and 4) strategies and philosophies for book clubs in general. If any of this interests you, please, keep your eyes open for more posts on this subject. If this doesn't interest you...suggest a topic in the comments, and I'll try to talk about it instead (or in addition). :-)


  1. Great post. I especially liked your acknowledgment of the "shame factor" that often deters potential attendees. And wow, I didn't realize the work book club was 5 years old. Are you sure it hasn't endured due to your excellent management? :) Well, assuming you thought of the idea for someone to always bring treats, that definitely couldn't have hurt attendance. Nice work, Book Club Prez (or whatever your title is.) I've certainly enjoyed our meetings.

  2. Just about (I think February is its birthday). Thanks for the encouragement. While I am the one who instituted the bringing of treats, it keeps going because of the participation of readers like you. (I meant that to sound like a PBS commercial. Did it work?)

  3. I love this first post in your book club series already!

    I have to admit that, though there is a book club in our area, I never attend because they always assign a book. Because the book is assigned, it is usually something that I don't want to read because I'm too busy reading books for the Lit subject GRE. Thus, even though my friend who attends this local book group claims that I could still go--even without reading the assigned book--I feel much too guilty to ever attend.

    Even though I started attending the Bethel group so close to the end, I thought it was an excellent book group. Hopefully, David and I can start something like it someday. That said, I am very interested to hear the rest of your book club ideas.