01 November 2010

Some guidelines for a successful book club

Since 1983 my wife and I have been members of a book club. We are one of five couples who are currently reading our 243rd book together. In recent days I have had the opportunity to clarify my own understanding of our club’s success and longevity, and thought it could be useful to share some of my insights with others who may be thinking of starting reading groups of their own.

1. A working book club is BOTH literary and social. Don’t neglect either.

I’ve heard that some clubs run into trouble when some members expect to discuss the book in depth and others expect a free-ranging social evening instead. Neither expectation is wrong! But problems come when someone wants one OR the other, not the obvious combination of both.

Our club has found it most useful to alternate homes for our monthly meetings and to share some food together at the beginning of each meeting, either a potluck supper or a dessert (in alternating months). We are able to catch up on each other’s lives and enjoy each other’s excellent cooking. Then, once well fed and socially lubricated, we can launch into the book discussion with improved focus.

It’s generally worked best when the host couple doesn’t have to lead the discussion. That way the hosts can concentrate on food and hospitality without the distraction of planning the book discussion, and the discussion leaders can concentrate on inspiring ideas without worrying about cooking.

These people are not my oldest friends (I’m over 70 and still have friends from my childhood with whom I keep in touch), but of the local friends I interact with regularly, they’re by far the most consistent, reliable, and meaningful. We’ve brought this on ourselves with regular meetings and clear purpose. And as such, they’re there to help me, and I them, when there’s a need – like an illness, for example, when the rest of us quickly find out and pitch in with food and other support.

2. When picking books, get recommendations from others, but trust your instincts.

Last week, I selected the latest book of Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Café stories for our club’s next meeting – without even looking at the title. It turned out that McLean was signing books at my local Costco store that day, exactly the day I was hunting for a book, and both he and his producer turned out to be kind, gracious professionals, generous with their time and patient with my aging memory as I scoured my brain for one of the couples’ names – yes, despite having known them for 27 years. Did I mention my age? (The memory tip that finally worked, courtesy of S.McL., was: Picture the house they live in.) I walked away with a big smile and five* autographed books, each happily received at the next meeting.

It’s not worth pretending that moments like this just fall out of the sky, but I think we can make ourselves especially poised to recognize and act on them as much as possible. It may be a simple matter of paying close attention to our environments and keeping sufficiently open minds.

Generally, I like to work out my ideas with other people. My preference to collaborate may, significantly, have been a product of my engineering background, but it also partially explains why I enjoy book club so much and why I am so happy that all four of my well-educated children married readers and are raising a new generation of young readers. Book reviews are just a phone call or email away for me. My son-in-law in particular, who has taught university writing and is currently helping me with my writing, has the useful habit of suggesting books as he thinks of them, so even though his last few suggestions left me underwhelmed (and later grateful for the inspiration at Costco), I’m eager to hear what he comes up with next.

In summary: Find sources you trust and keep going to them. These could be friends or family who have similar tastes to yours, or book reviewers in print or on the web, or the staff and fellow shoppers at your favourite bookstore. You may find other book clubs to be an especially good source.

But keep in mind that the final decision is yours. Certain books just feel right. You’ll know. (And trust others to use their intuition as well when choosing books; this leads to stimulating variety.)

*Related advice: When it’s your turn to buy books, buy copies for everyone. Though we didn’t start out this way, the principle is self-explanatory, once you think about it.

3. Be willing to talk about yourself.

We recently read a book set in St. Petersburg, Russia, a city that two of the couples had visited this year. My wife and I hosted the meeting, for which she prepared Russian borscht and Polish bigos and I compiled a set of photos of Russia to be shown as an automatic slideshow on our living-room HDTV.

As usual, our discussion was stimulating, invigorating, and sometimes emotional. Soon after we examined the book’s literary context (it was the first part of a trilogy but written last), some of us contributed personal contexts as well – in my case, not just stories from recent travels in Russia but also my own father’s experience as a child when he was exiled to Saratov, Russia, and experienced there some of the suffering described in the novel we’d read. My wife had even more to say: three of her father’s siblings died in the freezing boxcars taking them to frozen Russia, and the dead children had to be hidden under the straw in the railroad car for fear the authorities would separate the surviving family.

The rest of the club members had not personally lived through such conflicts and migrations, and so stood to gain from the perspective we contributed. Likewise, the others’ lives have granted them perspectives that I don’t have on my own but am always grateful to borrow.

Everyone has something different to offer, and to hold back just because your own experience seems too subjective is to deny your companions the enlightening connections they might make between their own experiences and yours. Trust your friends to filter out your prejudice, your blindness, your limitations, and to find the general human truth in a well-told specific personal story or opinion.

There’s a related key point: respect the privacy of your fellow members; respect what is told to you in confidence; respect the right of others to control the audience for what they privately and personally share. I recently relearned this in a hard and surprising way, when I circulated a more personally revealing (and more specifically narrative) version of this piece to the rest of the club for advice. Expecting praise or at least encouragement for my sincere boasts about my friends, I received instead a unanimous rebuke questioning the “appropriateness” and even the very purpose of my passionate words. Without going into too much embarrassing detail, the lesson I relearned, which I’m now passing on to you, is that “What happens in book club, stays in book club” – these, the words of a friend whose name I’ve respectfully withheld.

4. Be willing to talk about the issues of the day, even if disagreement is inevitable.

In our first meeting in 1983 we (all ten of us, the same five couples as today) watched the film Gandhi, which had recently come out on video, at our home. My personal journal for that day records my reflections on the film’s complicated messages about the power of protest and the fragility of peace, inspired no doubt by the discussion with new friends.

On the same page of my diary I mention the general strike that was breaking out all across British Columbia that year in protest against the provincial government’s fiscally conservative “Restraint” policies. It was an interesting comparison to Gandhi’s practice of non-violent non-cooperation, and a reminder to me now that the free exchange of ideas that book clubs encourage can have simultaneously local and global relevance. Our club has never shied away from the topical, and has been enriched over and over again by close interaction with the significant issues of the day.

Over the decades that followed, continued labour disputes would pit two of our members against each other, but only once (the first time) was it necessary to cancel our regular monthly meeting. After that, our differences created a benefit, not a threat, to our shared reading and thinking together.

A “first-rate intelligence,” according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, is marked by “the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The same intellectual character may also identify book clubs likely to survive many years: the ability to function well despite, or in many cases because of, individual oppositions. A mature community of readers and thinkers need not take others’ agreement for granted; rather, even among friends, we strive to earn agreement – and when this is not possible, we give and receive respectful disagreement.

5. Look for ways to follow up with authors and texts.

The Stuart McLean book was an obvious choice for me: I enjoy his radio program, as do many of the other members, and I enjoyed meeting him and benefiting from his comparatively youthful memory. When there is a connection with an author or book that in some way goes beyond the words on the page, the experience is more valuable and memorable.

In the case of McLean’s Vinyl Café books, much of the enjoyment comes from imagining the stories read in his carefully trained radio voice – long vowels, soft consonants, pauses well timed for effect. I’m still thinking about how nice it would be if I could introduce him to some of the other book club members when his show is in town next month.

(FYI: We have only had two authors decline an invitation to join our club’s discussion of their books. One had already accepted an invitation to the White House for the same date in 1988, and the other, a dear friend, was homebound with a terminal illness last year when we were scheduled to discuss his book, and, I’m sad to say, died not long before our meeting.)

6. Make your meetings a high priority.

All five couples are travelling more than they used to, sometimes for extended periods. Most of the members are active in the community, with related responsibilities. There seems to be little difference in free time between the retired and employed members.

But, as I mentioned, we’ve only missed one monthly meeting in 27 years, and that was a deliberate political choice. We’ve tried each year to plan ahead for a series of dates everyone can agree to. (We also find it useful to avoid formal meetings in July and August, though there is usually an informal activity for those who are in town.) Whenever individual situations suggest a schedule change, we’ve made every effort to find a new date that works for everyone. Sometimes this is truly impossible and the rest of us will meet in someone’s absence, but we try to keep those occasions rare.

(By the way, this is also an argument for restricting a book club to a manageable size.)

In short: Everyone’s busy but finds a way. Usually we find a Saturday evening we all have free, but there wasn’t one next month, so we went for a weekday instead. It’ll be a nice mid-week treat, almost like a holiday.

7. Keep records.

Did I mention we’ve read over 200 books together already? I’ll also mention that I once tried to keep them together, on a specially dedicated shelf (or rather shelves), and I also make sure to write the date and discussion leader on the title page of each book. Keeping track of all this history is still an intimidating enterprise, though, and I find myself too quickly losing what I’d rather keep.

So consider appointing a secretary/archivist – either permanently or for rotating terms. Some people are particularly, enthusiastically skilled at this; look for those who demonstrate good organizational skills and some competence with spreadsheets or databases. Minimally, keep track of authors, titles, and dates – though hosts and discussion leaders are also useful to remember.

8. Have fun.

This isn’t school. There are no exams to write. You’re an independent adult (right?). These are your friends, good ones. You’re sharing some of the best experiences of your lives. So stop worrying, relax, and enjoy yourself. Tomorrow has enough problems of its own, and they won’t go away on their own, but your ability to confront them, to move forward with your own life and its challenges, will be enhanced immeasurably by the continued inspiration of your intellectual and emotional friendship.

Plus, if you’re lucky like I am, the food’s great.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a member of a book club and we also thoroughly enjoy it.
    We have food, snacks first and dessert afterward. We meet on the third Tuesday in rotating members' homes, and I agree that it's hard to host and lead discussion. We seldom choose to do that. We take a break in the summer after our June meeting at a home on Lake Erie shores where we have a pot luck feast, discuss a book and submit titles for the following year. We try to read as many books as possible during the summer, then, if possible, reread before discussing them. Recently, we discussed Still Alice, and members shared the amazing ways that our parents have tried to hide increasing dementia. One woman commented that raising her three children had been and still was a considerable challenge. She looks forward to giving them such challenges in her senior years.