4 good ideas and 4 bad ideas about book clubs

PopSugar's Elyssa Friedland offers 10 tips for a successful book club.

I've been a member of a book club for more than a decade. Six people - three couples - meet and talk about books over dinner 6-8 times per year.

I've also visited with well over 100 book clubs over the course of my publishing career. It's been interesting. I've learned that book clubs are as diverse as the books themselves.

I've seen some crazy things.  

I love my book club, and I love visiting with book clubs. That said, I'm not a fan of this PopSugar list.  

I didn't like the list right from the start because it has ten items. When it comes to list, I never trust round numbers, and ten is the worst round number of all. A list of ten items almost always means that that effort was made to bring the list to this round number, so it's likely that a less-than ideal item was added to the list to bring it to ten or a useful item was left off the list to reduce it to ten.

Why magazine editors like this number so much is beyond me.

Would "Want to Have a Successful Book Club? Here Are 9 Tips" been so bad?

I also strongly oppose some of the ideas on the list. The most egregious:

1. Don't do it with your best friends.

While I appreciate the idea that diversity in a book club can offer a variety of perspectives, a book club is supposed to be fun. If I can't hang out with my closest friends and talk about books, that's probably not going to be fun.

3. Send out advance questions and pass them out at the book club.

This sounds like an excellent way to turn reading into work, the equivalent of a teacher assigning a book report. Can you imagine being handed a list of questions prior to your book club meeting?

I can't.

If this happened to me, I think I'd find myself trapped between the desire to tear up the list in the person's face or fold it into a paper airplane and throw it at the person's eyeball.

Don't make a book club more than what it's supposed to be: A conversation about the book.

4. Do it at work.

I hate this advice. It presumes that most American workplaces offer employees control over their time and space. It's simply not true. Millions of Americans are working in factories, retail establishments, the service industry, and for the government, not to mention the enormous numbers of people who are unemployed, retired, or opting out of the workforce. For a majority of Americans, conducting a book club at work would be impossible.

Do you want your local DMV worker using taxpayer money to discuss the intricacies of the latest Jonathan Franzen novel?

Do you really think the sales rep at Best Buy or the waiter at Applebees or the mechanic at Pep Boys is going to be afforded the time to gather with fellow employees in the break room to debate the portrayal of racism in Huckleberry Finn? 

Do you really think that your hairdresser or furnace technician will be gathering at the end of the day to discuss the brilliance of the latest Matthew Dicks novel?

This is advice for the precious few whose boss might think it lovely for employees to gather and discuss literature or who have the opportunity to take a long lunch simultaneously. 

This just doesn't happen for most people. 

Also, alcohol always makes book club better. Can't drink at work. 

9. Have a cell-phone bowl (like a key party).

No, this is not like a key party at all. A key party is a strategy used by swingers to determine their sexual partners for the evening. Keys are randomly selected from a bowl, and the key you choose corresponds to the person who you will be having sex with later that night.

This sounds like an exciting new model for a book club, but I don't think it's what Elyssa Friedland meant when she proposed collecting phones at the beginning of the meeting.  

This is a proposal to treat adults like children, which never sits well with me. If your book club is populated by adults, and one of them is staring at his phone all night, say something. Ask him to stop. Un-invite him from the book club. Don't impose rules that stop adults from being adults. 

All that said, I like a few of Friedland's ideas a lot. 

2. Rotate who chooses the book (a policy my book club uses).
5. Call the writer (I'm often called and asked to visit).
8. Give ample time between sessions.
10. Venture into nonfiction.

These are all good ideas. Reasonable and doable ideas. 

Friedland says that book clubs sound amazing in theory but in practice tend to fall short. She gives the average book club about three meetings before the deterioration begins. 

This has not been my experience. My book club has not wavered in the slightest, and the book clubs that I visit are enthusiastic, tightly-knit groups of mostly women who love reading and discussing literature.

Even mine. Happily so. 

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