Starting a Book Club When “Gathering” Is Difficult
There are many reasons to start a book club.
Maybe you love to read, and you want to participate in a book-focused social activity. Maybe you enjoy a unique genre of books, and you want to discuss them with somebody who understands. Or maybe you want to push yourself to read more, or read a wider variety of books, or read something that will grow you as a person. Maybe the peer pressure of such a club will help you achieve those goals.
Several years ago, my friend Esta and I decided that we’d love to be in a book club. The only problem was, we didn’t know who else would be interested in joining. The only people we could think of were our friends Janessa and Alyssa, and they didn’t live in our area.
So we decided, instead of a traditional book club, to start a “Virtual Book Club” over the Internet. We created a Facebook group, and kept at it for a year or so before eventually we grew busy and the book club sort-of faded out of existence.
But then the pandemic happened, and we were suddenly hungry for that social connection again. So we started it back up.
Here’s how traditional book clubs operate: A group of people decides to read the same book at the same time. Then, once everyone has read it, they have a meeting to talk about what they read. These meetings generally happen about once a month, to give people time to read the chosen book. Typically, they take place at a member’s house, but they can also be held in public spaces like libraries and coffee shops.
When Esta, Alyssa, Janessa and I decided to take this format and do it digitally, it was surprisingly fun and easy. If you’re interested in starting your own virtual book club to get you through this era of social distancing, especially with school letting out and summer break stretching out before you, here are some questions you should think about:
1. How many people do you want in your club?
Regular book clubs can become quite sizable. However, virtual book clubs become more difficult the larger they grow. People’s voices and input can get lost in the shuffle. I’d recommend starting out with 3-5 people. If that goes well, you can consider adding another member or two.
2. Who do you invite to join?
You can use your book club as a way to keep up with a group of friends you don’t see very often. Or, if you want to make new friends, you can ask your friends to invite their friends. But remember, you should all be interested in exploring the same sorts of books.
3. Who is leading your club?
Leaders are important for a virtual book club. Someone has to decide when to meet and what to read. Someone has to lead the discussion. If you are starting the club, you might automatically become the leader. If you’re uncomfortable with that, you can do what my virtual book club does, and pass around the leadership responsibilities. The members can all take turns choosing the books, and whoever chose the book can be responsible for leading the discussion that month.
4. What types of books do you want to read?
This should be an ongoing discussion between you and the other members of your book club. Do you generally prefer fiction or nonfiction? Are you reading for fun, or are you reading because you want to learn something? Do you like modern literature, or do you prefer the classics?
5. How will you communicate with each other?
When my book club began, we did everything on Facebook. We started a Facebook group, and after we read the book club pick, someone would start a discussion thread and the rest of us would comment our thoughts.
This time, starting the club up again, we switched to WhatsApp, which allowed us to leave voice messages of our thoughts instead of typing. Overall this was a better experience. Being able to speak to each other felt more like social interaction than typing a Facebook comment did.
Voice messages worked for us, because we’re all busy women and we live in vastly different time zones. It allowed us to have a discussion on our own schedules. However, if you can manage it, I think a zoom call would work better. Talk to your group and see what they prefer. Try different things and see what works.
Clear but Gentle Communication Is Key
Keep in mind, when starting your club, that clear, free-flowing communication is key. It’s important to be able to say what you really thought about the book you read, even if you didn’t like it, or even if it didn’t make sense to you.
However, try to keep a positive tone overall. Say things you liked as well as things you didn’t like, so that others also feel comfortable admitting their likes and dislikes.
On a similar note, it’s important to make others feel like their thoughts and opinions matter. If someone isn’t contributing much, ask them specifically what they think. This is especially important if you are the leader. As a leader, your job is to draw out other people’s thoughts, not to state what you think.
If you’re worried about the conversation lagging, Google is your friend. No matter what book you choose to read, someone, somewhere, has most likely made a list of book club discussion questions about it and put it on the Internet.
Finding a Book Everyone Likes
Choosing the books to read can be a tricky business. Sometimes you think a book is fine, and then part way through you find content you’re not comfortable with. It’s important to be considerate of other members and what they are and are not okay with reading about. Strive to create an environment where people are comfortable speaking out, and where members are flexible, willing to choose a different book if need be.
But remember, there’s a difference between something you’re not comfortable reading and something you simply don’t like. A book club should never force you to read something morally objectionable, but for the harmony of the group, everyone will sometimes have to read something that’s not their cup of tea.
Pushing yourself out of your reading comfort zone is actually something we should strive for. In fact, even if you’re reading a specific genre, I would encourage you to think of ways to still broaden your horizons. For instance, say your book club reads science fiction books exclusively. Instead of just sticking to your favorite authors, push the boundaries of the genre. Try finding books written in different eras, or by different types of authors. Look for books written by women, minorities, or even books that were originally published in different languages and translated into English. How do different types of people imagine a science fiction world differently from each other?
Overall, a book club should be a place of fun, social connection, and growth. Maybe the pandemic is keeping us from joining traditional book clubs just yet, but with a little flexibility and innovation we can find this same fun, social connection, and growth in an online version. And as a perk, if you find yourself, as Esta and I did, without a lot of bookish people in your area, it ultimately expands your opportunities for connection.