Keep Turning the Pages With Your Book Club

Michele Lerner

While reading is a solitary pursuit, talking about books with others and listening to book 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 reading goal.

Especially as we age, maintaining social connections like those which joining a book group provides, is beneficial to your health. Scientific research shows that increased in-person 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:

  • Increasing your vocabulary
  • Improving your attention span
  • Gaining greater brain connectivity
  • Lowering your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease
  • Increasing your empathy for others, becoming open to different perspectives
  • Reducing 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%.

And yet nearly one-fourth of American adults (24%) say they didn’t read a single book in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. 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 BookBrowse survey, in part because empty nesters and retirees have more time, want to connect with others, and like the intellectual challenge of belonging to a book club.

Joining a book club typically doesn’t require you to pay any fee. 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 a book 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 also an option, although they don’t carry the benefit of meeting people and interacting in person. However, discussing books online still offers intellectual stimulation, plus 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 and whether you would 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 just Russian literature 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, such as:

How many members you want. Typically, you want at least four to five people to regularly attend, but you can go as large as 20 if you have someone who can lead the discussion.

When you want to meet. While many groups meet in the evening, 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 each month or week or bimonthly so everyone can put it on their calendar. Even with a standing date, it’s helpful to have someone designated to email reminders of the meeting and the book to be read.

Where to meet. Ideally, you 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.

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, while others want to go simple with just dessert and coffee, or perhaps wine and cheese, depending on the time of day. Keeping it simple means you’re more likely to find people willing to host.

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:

  1. The book should be well-written and successful with other book groups.
  2. The book should be in a different genre than recent choices but still enjoyable for the group members.
  3. The book should be challenging and provoke good conversations.
  4. The book should be inspiring, topical, and even 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.

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 books 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, bookstores, book reviews in magazines and newspapers, and personal recommendations from friends 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 and to sell more books, 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:

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, such as 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.

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 books whose titles) begin with “D” or try warming up with charades based on favorite literary characters.
  • Start with a general question — such as an overall reaction to the book or to name a favorite character or scene — and ask anyone in the group to comment.
  • Bring in some type of visual or audio item related to the book, such as a map, photos, or music, to start the conversation or offer inspiration.
  • Write questions — about the book’s plot or main characters — on index cards and distribute them to members. Have each member (or a team of members in a larger group) answer them.
  • 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 handouts with character names or a plot summary, particularly 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 or 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 club members…leave a comment below with the name of your favorite book.

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