While reading is a solitary pursuit, talking about books with others and listening to discussions with authors adds a social element to an already healthy activity. Belonging to a book club can help you build relationships with others, while reading more deeply and committing to a goal.
Book Club Benefits
Especially as we age, maintaining social connections is beneficial to your health. Scientific research shows that increased engagement with others — whether it’s a chat over coffee or catching up with friends — provides both mental and physical health benefits.
Numerous research studies point to the specific benefits of reading as an activity that:
- Increases your vocabulary
- Improves your attention span
- Helps you gain greater brain connectivity
- Lowers your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease
- Increases your empathy for others
- Helps you become open to different perspectives
- Reduces stress
For example, scientists at Mindlab International at the University of Sussex in the U.K. found that reading for only six minutes a day lowered stress by up to 68%.
Yet nearly one-fourth of American adults (24%) say they haven’t read a single book in a year, according to the Pew Research Center. But the numbers are worse, the older you get. Some 28% of adults ages 50 and older have not read a book in the past year, compared with 20% of adults under 50.
At the other end of the spectrum are the particularly passionate readers who belong to book clubs. More than half of American adults (57%) who read more than one book each year belong to a book club, according to a survey by BookBrowse.com. Participation in book clubs increases with age, according to the survey, in part because empty nesters and retirees have:
- More time
- Want to connect with others
- Like the intellectual challenge of belonging to a book club
Joining a book club typically doesn’t require you to pay any fees. In fact, if your group chooses books with multiple copies available from the public library, you don’t even have to pay for the books. Otherwise, you may need to spend a little money on purchasing the reading material. Some book clubs deliberately pick older books that are available used or in paperback versions.
Finding a Book Club
While there are plenty of established book clubs, both in person and online, it’s not always easy to find one that meets your expectations. Some people like to belong to a group with people they already know, while others seek to meet new people through the club. Groups can be organized by gender, age, or interests, or can be open to anyone. One-third of book club members belong to more than one book club, according to the BookBrowse survey.
If you don’t know of an existing book club, you can start your search by checking with your library system or a local bookstore. Many offer several book clubs that meet at different times and have different themes. You can search on Meetup.com for local groups. Some groups are formed at community centers and neighborhood clubhouses or through a local online newsletter. The Women’s National Book Association supports book clubs and sponsors literary events around the country.
Online-only groups are an option. Discussing books online still offers intellectual stimulation. Plus you’ll have the opportunity to virtually meet people from a broader geographical area or with specific reading interests. You can find online groups on Goodreads.com and on BookBrowse.com.
Before you join a book group, think about what you would like to get out of it. Do you like the group to have a particular focus? For example, some book clubs choose to read only books on The New York Times‘ Notable Books list or only science fiction.
You can contact the librarian, book store or leader of a book club to find out more about how often they meet and to see if the group would be a good fit for you. Ask if you can attend a meeting as a guest before committing to become a member.
Founding a Book Club
If you don’t find a book group you want to join, or you just want to start your own with a few people you know who love to read, you’ll need to make some decisions about how to organize the group. Think about things like:
- How many members you’ll want: Typically, you’ll want at least four to five people to regularly attend. However you can go as large as 20 if you have someone who can lead the discussion. Not everyone will be able to attend every meeting.
- When you want to meet: Many groups meet in the evening. However a daytime meeting can work well for a group with flexible hours or who are retired. It’s best to schedule the same day and time for each meeting so everyone can put it on their calendar. Even with a standing date, it’s helpful to have someone designated to email reminders about the date and the book.
- Where to meet: Ideally, you’ll want a place that’s quiet enough for a discussion and yet allows groups to meet. Some local coffee shops and libraries work well and so do community centers or rooms at universities. Many groups meet at someone’s home — either the same person’s home every month or rotating among the group’s members. However, until it’s safe to meet in person, you can keep your meetings going virtually by using Zoom, Skype or another online meeting tool.
- Food and drink options: If you’re hosting book club meetings in someone’s home, it’s a good idea to set guidelines. Some book clubs love to make food that fits with the book being discussed. Others want to go simple with just dessert and coffee or wine and cheese. Keeping it simple means you’re more likely to find people willing to host. When meeting virtually, you may choose to skip the food and drink or keep the theme going.
Deciding What to Read
Whether your book club prefers fiction, nonfiction or a mix of both, BookBrowse’s survey found that most book club members identified these four factors as important to a good book choice:
- Well-written and successful with other book groups
- In a different genre than recent choices but still enjoyable for the group members
- Challenging and able to provoke good conversations
- Inspiring, topical and maybe even be a little bit controversial
Fiction tends to be the most popular, with 70% of book clubs reporting to BookBrowse that they read primarily fiction and occasionally add in a nonfiction selection.
Who Chooses the Book?
If you’re setting up your own book club, one of the most important elements is to decide how the books will be chosen. Some book clubs have one meeting to choose the books for the rest of that year. Members can have a formal vote or an informal discussion about which ones to choose. Other groups have each month’s host choose the book. If you have a group leader or meeting facilitator, that person may want to either choose the books or offer a list of preferred novels from which the group can choose. You may want to choose slightly older books that are available at the public library or in paperback to help keep costs low for your group members.
Numerous resources are available to help you select books, including:
- Newsletters you can sign up for
- Sites such as Goodreads.com
- Your local librarian
- Book reviews in magazines and newspapers
- Personal recommendations from friends, family and book group members
According to BookBrowse, about 80% of groups read local authors at least occasionally and invite them to join their book group in person or via Skype. Many authors — especially local ones — enjoy the opportunity to talk about their work, so they will typically make arrangements to participate if asked. Authors tend to have pages on Amazon or their own websites that will provide their contact information or that of their publishers.
More resources for book selections include:
- Bookmarks Magazine
- New York Review Books’ Book Club Guides
- Goodreads’ Best for Book Clubs
Tips for a Good Book Discussion
Some book groups last for decades and the enthusiasm among members never wanes, while others flounder without a good structure for the meetings. It’s easy, particularly if your book group includes your friends, to become a social group that rarely talks about a book. That’s fine if that’s what everyone wants, but it can be frustrating to those who joined the group for in-depth literary discussions.
One way to avoid misunderstandings is to establish a structure in the beginning and a few rules. Discuss how often people can miss meetings, expectations for reading the book before gatherings and even a timeline for the meetings. Some groups like to build in 30 minutes of social time while everyone gathers and then set aside one hour or more to focus on the book. Others like to start the meeting with the book discussion and allow for socializing afterwards.
Making the Meeting Fun
If your discussions are stale or you are preparing to start your book club, try these ideas from LitLovers submitted to ILoveLibraries.org:
- Try a literary game as an icebreaker, particularly if your members don’t know each other well. For example, have everyone name as many authors as they can whose last names or book titles begin with a certain letter. Or try warming up with charades based on favorite literary characters.
- Start with a general question and ask anyone in the group to comment. Ask about their overall reaction to the book or to name a favorite character or scene.
- Bring in some type of visual or audio item related to the book. You could use a map, photos or music, to start the conversation or offer inspiration.
- Have a quote or an idea from the book ready and ask members to comment on it.
- Choose a character and ask for comments on the character’s motivations or actions.
- Consider providing or emailing handouts with character names or a plot summary. This is particularly useful if you’re discussing a long, complex book with numerous characters.
- You may also want to suggest that your book club members take some notes as they read. They can flag passages they find interesting or want to discuss.
A little preparation can go a long way to make your book club even more valuable and enjoyable.
Whether you already love to read and want to broaden your choice of books, you’re looking for a new way to build relationships with your friends and neighbors, or you want to meet new people, a book club can stimulate your mind while you have fun.
Let’s spark some ideas for book lovers. Comment below to let us know your favorite book.