A staggering statistic has been battered about lately. Something like 28% of American adults did not read a single book last year. Not in print, not on Kindle, not even plugged into an audio book on a long commute.
Who are these people? I do not know them. Books accompany me at all times, just in case I have extra minutes in the pick up line at school, in a doctor’s office, or at a kid’s sports practice. Whispered confession: occasionally, if it’s a real page turner, even at long red lights. They tuck me in at night and share my breakfast when I wake up. Going a whole year without turning a page would be like giving up chocolate: no bueno.
My bookshelf houses mostly fiction. Turns out, that’s mostly what women read, while most men who read (a much rarer species) head for the non-fiction. Supposedly this is because fiction has characters, and women specialize in empathy, making it easier for us to get caught up in the story. Also, we are (again a generalization) a more patient gender, and from an earlier age have learned to sit still to actually make it to the end of a novel.
Women congregate. We huddle up. We have play dates, lunch dates, ladies’ night out, and entire girls’ weekends. Women who read, it stands to reason, gather over books. Book clubs are a lot like friendships. Some weather all phases of life and meet steady as clockwork for decades. Some wax and wane with the members’ seasons of life, knitting new ties and loosening old ones.
I’ve been in several book clubs since my 20’s, each with its own flavor. With book clubs, as in life, diversity of membership is best for interesting discussion. Over the years, members have included different nationalities, races, ages, religions, and marital status. Best book we discussed: Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy.
Book clubs are dynamic entities that require care and feeding to survive. While book clubs are as varied as the books they celebrate, some basic principles apply to each.
First, (duh) book clubs work best if the members read the book. If you hate it, choke it down so at least you can say why you hated it. If you read it weeks ago and can’t remember any of it, jot down some notes or highlight your copy so you can point out thought-provoking or well-written passages. Reading books does take time and some self-discipline. Knowing I have to share some halfway intelligent opinions by a certain date spurs me to turn off the TV and quit scrolling through Twitter so I can finish and contribute.
Whether you rotate who chooses the book or your group is led by a scepter-wielding dictator, people’s preferences differ so don’t shoot the messenger. The person who picked the book probably didn’t write it, so if it was the worst drivel you’ve ever slogged through, blame the author, not the chooser. Intimidation and insults don’t stimulate meaningful conversation, generally. If this happens a lot for you, maybe you’re in the wrong group.
Also, kind of the whole reason book clubs exist is so you can branch out, grow, learn from others’ experiences and perspectives, yadda yadda yadda. So probably you shouldn’t dig in your heels and refuse to be flexible. Unless it’s one of the group’s stated tenants that it “doesn’t read horror,” for example, it’s kind of like eating at someone else’s house. You don’t make faces, declare it “Yucky!” and refuse to try a bite. Surely something in the book will interest you. Come on, just try it! You can read your personal preference outside the group.
Some book groups are highly disciplined, following the reader’s guides in the back of the book and staying on task. Some have good intentions but manage to keep falling down tangential rabbit holes. If your goal is actually to discuss the book and not just to finish the bottle of wine, it helps for the person who chose the book to have some questions to rein in the gossip and chatter. Depending on the personalities in the group, this can be a herculean task and frustrating for those who came for a book club. This is when Dory’s voice plays in my head: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, that’s what we do, we swim….”
Mix it up. Many popular titles are released as movies or TV series. (Think Outlander or Girl on a Train.) Double dip and have a girls’ night out field trip to compare the book with the movie. (Spoiler alert: the book is always better.)