Book clubs on boats. Book clubs in cars. Book clubs complete with game shows and nudity.

In the past nine years, I've attended hundreds of book clubs to talk about my books. It is by far one of my favorite ways to meet readers, because unlike a book store or library appearance, these folks have already read my book and are prepared to ask some interesting questions.

I've also learned that not all book clubs are alike. I've seen some strange and fascinating things over the years while visiting with book clubs, including:

  • Game shows - complete with theme music and large, colorful props - designed to test book club members' knowledge of the story
  • Power point presentations arguing in favor of the next book
  • Buffets only containing foods mentioned within the book
  • Skinny dipping (admittedly, that was my own book club, and not me)
  • End-of-year, Academy Award styled awards shows for favorite books and characters from the previous year (voted on by secret ballot by members of the book club)
  • Heated arguments (and one woman storming out of the house) over disagreements about themes and plot points, (even though the author was there to definitively answer the question)

I've attended book clubs in living rooms, restaurants, backyards, libraries, community centers, and churches. I've joined book clubs via Skype with people from all over the country and the world. I once spoke with a group of Saudi Arabian women wearing head scarves that covered everything but their eyes.

Twice I've attended a book club hosted on a boat.

Perhaps the strangest book club I ever visited was one who I joined while driving through the Bronx. Elysha and I were on the way to a Moth StorySLAM and planned to arrive early so I could join the group via Skype on my phone to answer a few questions before the show. Traffic slowed us, so the call from the book club came as I drove through the Bronx to the show. 

Elysha pointed the camera at me, and as I navigated my way through the streets, I answered questions about Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend. The group even asked Elysha some questions about being married to an author.

We spoke for about 15 minutes. In that time, I found the theater, parallel parked, and wrapped up the call in the car while Elysha went to get a spot in line. 

I've often thought about writing a book about my wide and varied experiences with book clubs: both my own book club and the ones I've visited. It wouldn't be a terribly long or especially profound book, but that might make it the perfect book for book clubs everywhere.  

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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PowerPoint presentations, game shows, skinny dipping, and now The Oscars: Quirks of the many book clubs I have attended

Last week I attended the meeting of Sheltering Trees, a book club in Wallingford, Connecticut. The members of the group (more than a dozen ladies ranging in ages from their twenties to their seventies) were kind enough to read Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend, so I joined them for their discussion.


As expected, it was great fun. Book club events always are.

After having attended the meetings of more than 100 book clubs over the past five years, I’ve discovered that every book club has its own traditions, rules, quirks, and eccentricities.

I’ve attended a book club meeting that opened with a game show created by the host, played by the other members, and was based upon the book they  read.

I watched a book club choose their next book via professional presentations that included PowerPoint presentations, heated discussions, and carefully chosen clips from New York Times reviews.

I attended a book club meeting where two of the women disappeared in the midst of the meeting, only to be later found skinny dipping in the pond.

The latter was my own book club.

I could probably write a book about my adventures attending book club meetings. I probably should.  

The book club that I met with last week ends their meeting by rating the book on a 1-10 scale, and these scores are averaged, giving the book a final score. These women  take this rating process very seriously. In addition to assigning a number, each person also gives a reason for their determination. Members not present who finished the book can email in their rating and rationale. One of their members was in Korea but still took the time to email a score and a paragraph explaining her thinking. 

As the author, it was both fascinating and a little terrifying to listen to these women, who pull no punches, rate my book. I offered to leave to allow them to be honest, but they insisted I stay. “Don’t worry,” one woman said. “we won’t be careful of your feelings.” Two of my ladies in the group assigned my book a perfect ten, which causes the rest to burst into spontaneous, uproarious applause.

These women take their perfect scores very seriously.

I also had my share of eights and nines from the group, and my book ultimately received an average score of a nine, which I was told is very good.

At the end of the year, the book club meets for an award’s night of sorts. The members vote on the books read during the year in categories like best and worst book, best passage from a book, best and worst male and female character, best discussion, best cover, and more. They run this awards gala like the Oscars. Members vote, and presumably one member (unless they also enlist the services of Price Waterhouse) collects the votes and places the winner’s names in Oscar-like envelopes for the dramatic reveal. 

No book is read for that December meeting. It’s simply a review of the previous year’s books.

The women were kind enough to invite me and Elysha to their awards celebration, and if the date is open, I’m going. This book club is comprised of an interesting cast of characters (they always are), and I suspect that the evening will be highly entertaining.

Maybe it will be the final straw that pushes me over the edge and makes me want to write that book.