Maybe it’s too much like school: you’re “assigned” a book to read, expected to make insightful comments and sent away with even more responsibility (deadlines, emails and appetizers to bring). Whatever the reasons, the possibilities for Book Club Dysfunction are endless. Take care to avoid these common pitfalls, and your literary salon may flourish (unless it’s only an excuse to meet with friends and sip wine — a worthy excuse, mind you).
1. Talk about anything but books.
An inherent danger in neighborhood book clubs, this includes long discussions about the resident whose dog bites, the elderly folks with the unkempt yard or the speeding teenage drivers. Consider creating a Facebook page to divert non-book-related issues.
2. Pick books that are too narrow in their scope and audience.
Even though your book club may be full of women approaching middle age, don’t assume they will enjoy books that target their stage of life (or any book with a dog as a main character — empty nest syndrome, you know). Two of the most popular books in my groups have included A.S. Byatt’s Possession, a time-traveling literary love story, and David Benioff’s City of Thieves set in Leningrad during World War II. Both couldn’t be further from the daily existence of carpool-driving mothers; they are simply riveting stories.
3. Give group members less than three weeks to read a 325-page novel.
Yes, calendars may fluctuate from month to month given holidays, school schedules or vacations. But, if given the choice between going out to dinner with a visiting college roommate or sitting on the couch trying to cram the last 150 pages into your brain, I sincerely hope you’re sane enough to go out. Reading shouldn’t be stressful or a chore. Give people more time, and they’ll enjoy the book.
4. Rely upon a friend-of-a-friend or, even worse, a friend-of-your-mother’s-book-club-friend for recommendations.
Picking the right book is like picking the right wine: if you don’t try a sip or rely upon a trustworthy recommendation, you’re in for a guessing game. And time is way too valuable to be stuck plodding through Aunt Sally’s friend’s sister-in-law’s pick.
5. Over-do it on “the classics.”
While it can be refreshing to revisit a book like Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter, too many classics can weigh your club down and make it feel geriatric. So much modern fiction of excellent quality is published every year that it’s almost lazy to rely upon your high schooler’s assigned reading list. Throw in a thriller like Gone Girl or a literary mystery like Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories to avoid the classics rut.
6. Don’t stay up-to-speed on award-winning books or local authors gaining national attention.
Sign up for email alerts from a favorite publisher, bookstore or website; find a reviewer whose taste overlaps with your own and read their blog. This way you won’t be clueless when someone suggests your group read the new Donna Tartt novel. Many authors — Margaret Atwood and Bret Easton Ellis among them — even tweet about their favorite new reads.
7. Preach about religion, politics or social issues through your book selection.
Yes, politicos (and their ghost writers) sell millions of books — but why go there in a small group situation? Far better is a novel exploring different viewpoints. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom does what no radio talk show can with it’s lampooning of stereotypes on both the right and the left, and JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You presents multiple viewpoints on the controversial subject of euthanasia within an easily-discussible, non-hostile love story.
8. Don’t embrace technology, reading devices or other forms of media.
While looking at an author’s website, I noticed that he loved to Skype with book clubs. So I quickly sent him an email and arranged a Skype conversation during my next book club meeting. With a little preparation (widescreen TV, chairs placed accordingly and a few failed attempts to connect to the internet) a group of parochial school mothers was soon chatting about the history of the Russian royal family with Robert Alexander (The Kitchen Boy), literally bringing the author into our discussion.
9. Make attendance mandatory and be entirely inflexible about set-in-stone meeting times.
This is a sure-fire way to quickly lose members. Who doesn’t have sick kids, flat tires, vacations and work issues interfere with planned evenings out now and then? While “control” types may seethe under the collar when disorganized members miss a meeting, setting an unnaturally high standard of attendance for a book club — which is supposed to be enjoyable, social and enlightening — can only cause disappointment.
Book clubs are an invaluable source for building relationships with books as well as people. By being open to other’s tastes, we learn more about our friends and, eventually, ourselves. And, if all else fails, there’s always the wine.
Amy Bonesteel, an Atlanta-based freelance reporter and author, has contributed to Time, Atlanta Magazine and many other publications. She is in three book clubs, two of which she started, and is the founder of Book Club Rebel.