Thursday, October 13, 2011

Creating a Successful Book Group: Please Learn from My Mistakes

In Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Mrs. Allan tells Anne: "We should regret our mistakes and learn from them, but never carry them forward into the future with us."  I have taken this advice to heart (along with everything else from the Anne of Green Gables series, including the request I made of my husband to propose to me again, except this time standing on a bridge in trousers with his hair slicked to one side while mentioning sunbursts and marble halls).  Now I have made a lot of mistakes, but one of my all-time doozies has to be my first book club.  

Years ago, someone from church asked me to select a book and organize a group discussion for the women of the congregation.  Anyone with half a brain would have considered the audience and chosen something sweet and spiritual.  And short.  Instead, I panicked and picked the first recommendation that came my way:  The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter.  For those of you who haven't read it, I'll summarize:  imagine an award-winning, post-modern multicultural treatise peppered with references to distilleries, nudity, and the occasional "hell" or "damn," written by a former Ku Klux Klan member (a little showstopper I stumbled upon while doing research for the discussion).  Now, to be fair, I really enjoyed the book.  And as far as scandal goes, Little Tree is about as vanilla as it gets it my opinion.  I guess I'm just rebellious that way.  But had I actually read The Education of Little Tree before choosing it, I might have anticipated the coronary that Sister S. would have while reading about a boy drinking whiskey and urinating in the woods.  

When the evening of the discussion arrived, I had compiled a list of approximately 1 1/2 probing questions to spark commentary, assuming that the conversation would spontaneously weave itself into a magnificent tapestry of wisdom and literary insight.  Um, wrong.  Half the room looked at me wide-eyed when I kept mentioning the word "protagonist" as if it referred to some sort of sexual deviant, and the other half of the room tumbled on top of each other in a confusing heap trying to get a word in edgewise.  I can only think of 60 minutes that felt longer than that first book group experience, and that was pushing a baby's head through my cervix.  

It shouldn't have been a shock to me when the church book group was disbanded as quickly as it had begun.  No one rebuked me or complained, they simply swallowed and politely passed me by.  I felt as guilty and humbled as I have ever felt before in church.  And all over a little book.  

But, as Sister Lucy Maud Montgomery would say, what are mistakes for, if not to improve our futures?  I am happy to report that my first book group failure has been redeemed by many book group successes ever since.  In fact, I now love book groups so much that I am a member in four clubs.  Excessive?  Perhaps.  But it is also a testimony of how compelling and enjoyable a good book group can be.  Heaven knows I've seen what a book group failure looks like, but I've also seen what a successful book group looks like.  So, as you take the plunge in starting your own book group (or tweaking one you are already a part of), take my advice and consider the following:

1.  10 is a magic number.  It worked for Moses.  It works for book groups.  If you limit your membership to 10 people or fewer, you will find that you have enough variety in personality and experience to keep the conversation insightful and exciting, while giving everyone an opportunity to share their ideas.  This doesn't mean that large groups aren't successful.  It simply means that you won't be able to achieve the same depth of individual expression with lots of people.  And that's okay.  There are some people that I don't care to know deeply.  But then again, you're probably nicer than me.  I've also noticed that the larger the group, the more casual the commitment is.  If you don't want to limit your guest list, then limit your expectations of how and when people will participate.

2.  Get on the same page.  I have seen two basic formats for book groups.  Option 1:  You agree on a list of books (like the classics, or Oprah's selections, etc.) and take turns hosting the various choices. Option 2:  Everyone picks a month and chooses their own book for the group to read.  Whatever format you decide on, make sure everyone has the same expectation.  Some people prefer the objectivity of going into a novel together sight-unseen. However, others feel strongly that the host should read the book before choosing it, both as a window into their mysterious person, and as a "screening" for potential problems in content that may be challenging to your audience (e.g. Sister "Coronary" on the third pew).  I've seen both work well, but your group needs to agree on the approach.

3.  Give homework and do homework.  As the host, you should know everything you can about the book--like whether it was written by a white supremacist or not, thank you Forrest Carter--to help fuel discussion and answer questions.  It's also helpful to have a thoughtful list of questions (more than 2) to guide conversation.  Some of my favorite book group experiences have centered around a book-specific assignment.  For example, when my friend Denise hosted a discussion on Sandra Dallas's Persian Pickle Club (a novel about a quilting group), she had us each bring a square of fabric that represented ourselves.  This "homework assignment" not only helped me to reconsider myself symbolically (apparently I'm a graphic red and white cotton stripe), but it also allowed me to understand everyone in the group on a whole new level.  It also solved that pesky problem of making sure everyone gets the same amount of air time. 

4.  Good Food.  And lots of it.  Preferably with a nod to the book.  (Unless you are reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy.)

It's not a comprehensive list of do's and dont's, but it will give you a good start.  Learn from my mistakes and enjoy the successes of your literary labors.  Good reads to you all.  (And that even includes The Education of Little Tree.)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Can't believe your bad book group started with that book. Mine did too! I chose that book and then was shocked to learn from the other literary critics that the author had been involved in a scandal and wasn't really a Cherokee and the whole thing was a fraud ... I was so embarrassed. My research was all about the literary themes -- nothing about the author!

  3. Firstly, I so enjoyed your humourous encounter of your first book group! There's always room to learn from one's experiences. I also belong to a book group, it started off around 6 years ago, and there were 10 of us, we've slowly diminished to 5, not due to any problems, but rather, ladies starting work, moving away from our area etc.
    Our group works a little differently: Each month the hostess buys books from the monthly contributions we each put in. Books she likes. The books go into our book group collection of books. About 4 times a year we go through the collection and those that everyone has read (or simply don't want to read), get given back to the person who bought them.
    We don't really discuss the books much more than asking, "Who's read this one? was it any good?" before taking it home. :o) We may or maynot end up discussing a book now and then, but mostly it's about our friendship - and yummy cake and coffee of course! :o)

  4. Great tips! It sounds like your book groups these days are plenty of fun. And anyone who's offended at a boy urinating in the woods . . . . well let's just say they never had the honor of being the mother of boys. :) (Because that's just what boys do.)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...