How to Run a Book Club

My wife works for the New Haven Public Library system, and several years ago she asked me if I would please lead an after-hours book club once a month at the Mitchell branch in Westville. There had been several requests from patrons for such a book club, but she had not yet found anyone willing to run it. I grumbled since I generally don't like being pulled into volunteer ventures that I didn't express an interest in on my own. Still, I am of the bookish sort, so I agreed on one condition: I choose all the books.

Now such a request might strike you as not being properly within the spirit of the "book club" as practiced in the United States. My wife had been in book clubs where the next book was selected either by the group as a whole or individually by the participants on a rotating basis. This was the same process adopted for the mother-daughter book club that she and my daughter had attended for nearly six years. As far as I could tell, selection by the collective mind or individual members of the group appeared to be the norm, and yet, from my wife's reports on the level of group satisfaction, results seemed hit or miss, at best.

I, too, had tried book clubs--twice, in fact--but with no success whatsoever. The first time was in New York City. It was, by and large, a classics-only reading list organized by local alumni of the University of Chicago, my undergraduate alma mater. All I recall from that was a knockdown argument about Austen's Mansfield Park, a less-than-inspiring novel that my fellow readers defended vigorously because, as far as I could tell, it was a "classic." And yet despite how much I enjoyed the next selection, Joseph Conrad's Victory, I just didn't have the heart or energy to re-engage. Chalk it up to lethargy and cowardice.

Years later, I tried to beat that one-night stand by forming another club in New Haven with two friends, giving us a grand total of three attendees. The gods did not smile on this effort either. The first book was a poorly written academic treatise on the black experience in America. That first meeting bogged down in the selector defending the book from my undisguised disdain for what struck me as weak argument masquerading behind social scientific prose modeled on the Talcott Parsons school of bad writing. (If you've never read Parsons, you'd be in for a treat, on par with activities like self-flagellation and dumpster diving.)

So, after hearing some of my wife's complaints and considering my own wretched experiences, I was pretty firm in my decision that any book group I moderated would feature only books I picked. Selfish? Absolutely. But I was being asked to run it, so I felt completely at liberty to set the rules. Moreover, I had been apprised that in order for the library to order enough copies for participants to read ahead of time, titles had to be chosen two to three months in advance. So I decided to work out a reading list for the whole year. Still, I had to sell my selecting everything to the participants.

Here's how I did it. When the group of six or so individuals showed up that first day, I introduced myself and then, after explaining my wife's request of me to run this group, I audaciously proclaimed: "I will be selecting all of the books. This will not be a democracy. If you don't wish to participate, I will understand entirely. If you're willing to come along for the ride, I will explain the method behind the madness." Then after the self-aggrandizing declaration that I held a doctorate in English, I got down to the brass tacks of laying out how the literary wheat would be separated from the prosaic chaff.

I would choose only prose fiction. Nonfiction, poetry, and plays were out. I wasn't interested in venturing into other genres and wrestling with the problems inherent to those genres: lack of subject expertise for nonfiction; no real training in meter, rhythm, syntax and the rhetorical gimmickry of poetry (do you know what a zeugma is?); an ignorance of stagecraft for plays. Of course, I was probably blowing the size of these problems out of proportion, but let's face facts: as book groups go, many of us are more comfortable with and find it easier making connections to prose fiction.

Next, all my fiction selection were to have been published in the last year or two, reducing the likelihood of anyone having read the work (myself included), a rule that ended up holding true for the group. More selfishly, I was dreadfully under-read in the latest literary fiction, so I was looking to explore: I had grown sick of classical literature and, as defined by academic standards, "contemporary fiction."

All of the book titles were either to have been the recipients of or shortlisted for a major literary award. It could be one of the "generalist" prizes, such as the Booker or Pulitzer, or genre-specific, such as the Edgar for mystery or the Hugo or Nebula for science fiction.

Even after I had built my own short list of titles worthy of consideration for the twelve precious monthly slots in my book club reading list, I then took the extra step of dipping into Amazon and skimming the Publishers Weekly review of each work. However—and this was a big however—I was not checking to see how much or how little the reviewer cared for the title at hand. Frankly, I couldn't care less about that. (I had once been a Publisher's Weekly reviewer, so I know of what I speak.) What I was really after was a summary of the plot, since I most wanted books that featured unusual or downright quirky story lines or points of view. I was after more than mere competence; I was on the hunt for novelty. It wasn't enough that the book be a "finely wrought" or "artfully cast" tale of growing up abused in the South. Growing up abused in the South was a cottage industry at the time of this club, so who needed more of that? But growing up abused in the south, say, in a parallel universe where the Confederacy had won the Civil War, or in a house that doubled as the novel's narrator—now, that was perhaps worth reading.

In the end, there were no guarantees that the results would be universally acclaimed...and they weren't. Even I was disappointed by some of my selections! But I would say, overall, the batting average was pretty high, which gave me hope that my Pinochet-like approach to book clubbing had some merit.

This book club lasted two years, and it was a good club. In the end it dissolved largely because of me. Work had become hectic with an intense travel schedule that regularly interfered with my ability to meet the book club's most basic obligation—showing up! But had I to do all over again, I honestly think I would do it no other way, unless all of the participants themselves were willing to select books according to the rules I had set for myself. Is that too selfish? Perhaps. But it worked, and that was good enough for me.

So what were your book club experiences like?