My Patchy Experience with Book Clubs

I know that a number of you have long-term, faithful book clubs. Boy, am I envious! You might find it surprising that I’ve only ever been in one traditional book club, and it wasn’t a resounding success. Partway through my time working for King’s College, London, an acquaintance from another library branch started the club. A group of five to eight of us from Library Services aimed to meet after work one evening a month at a Southbank venue or a staff room to discuss our latest pick. By poring over old e-mails and my Goodreads library, I’ve managed to remember 10 of the books we read between November 2011 and June 2013:

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick [classic science fiction]
  • The Little Shadows, Marina Endicott [Canadian historical fiction]
  • A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon [contemporary fiction]
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith [classic suspense]
  • The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox [bizarre historical fiction/magic realism]
  • What Was Lost, Catherine O’Flynn [contemporary fiction]
  • Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger [classic short fiction]
  • The Rabbi’s Cat, Joann Sfar [graphic novel in translation]
  • Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith [an update of Greek myth]
  • Angel, Elizabeth Taylor [an obscure English classic]

That may well be the complete list. Although I was a member for 20 months until I quit to go freelance, we often only managed to meet every other month because we couldn’t find a mutually convenient free evening or no one had read the book in time. I was consistently frustrated that – even when our selections were only about 200 pages long – I was often one of the only people to have read the whole book.

Overall, the quality of books we chose struck me as mediocre: I rated half of these books 2 stars, and the rest 3 stars. (I think I was a harsher rater then, but it’s not a good sign, is it?) Perhaps this is part of the inevitable compromising that goes with book clubs, though: You humor other people in their choices and hope they’ll be kind about yours? My suggestion, for the record, was the pretty dismal Little Shadows, for which I got a free set of book club copies to review for Booktime magazine. But I also voted in favor of most of the above list.

Looking back, I am at least impressed by how varied our selections were. People were interested in trying out different genres, so we ranged from historical fiction to sci-fi, and even managed a graphic novel. But when we did get together for discussion there was far too much gossipy chat about work, and when we finally got around to the book itself the examination rarely went deeper than “I liked it” or “I hated all the characters.”


If it was profound analysis I was after, I got that during the years I volunteered at Greenbelt, an annual summer arts festival with a progressive Christian slant. I eagerly read the eclectic set of three books the literature coordinator chose for book club meetings in 2010 – Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis, The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder – and then as a literature volunteer for the next three years I read and prepared copious notes and questions about our festival “Big Read.” We did Exile by Richard North Patterson in 2011, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett in 2012 and So Many Ways to Begin by Chris Beckett in 2013, and each time I offered to chair the book club meetings.

Unfortunately, due at least in part to logistical considerations, these were run in the way many festival events are: a panel of two to five talking heads with microphones was at the front of the tent, sometimes on a raised dais, while the audience of whatever size sat towards the back. This created a disconnect between the “experts” and the participants, and with the exception of the McGregor meeting I don’t recall much audience input. I’ve mostly blanked out the events – as I tend to for anything that entails public speaking and nervous preparation for something you can’t control – but I was pleased to be involved and I should probably make more of this on my CV. It wasn’t your average book club setting, that’s for sure.

In recent years the closest thing I’ve had to a book club has been online buddy reading. The shadow panels for the Wellcome Book Prize and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award fall into this category, as do online readalongs I’ve done for several Iris Murdoch novels and for C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity with various female family members. A few of us book bloggers chatted about Andrea Levy’s Small Island in an online document earlier this year, and my mom and I e-mailed back and forth while reading W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil in May. I’m also doing my last three of the #20BooksofSummer as online buddy reads, checking in occasionally on Twitter.

Of course, there are some inherent limitations to this kind of discussion – people read at different paces and don’t want to spoil the plot for others, and at some point the back-and-forth fizzles out – but it’s always been easier for me to organize my thoughts in writing, so I likely feel more comfortable contributing than I might in an in-person meeting.


This is all context for my decision to join my neighborhood book club next month. The club arose some months back out of our community’s Facebook group, a helpful resource run by a go-getting lady a few doors down from us. So far it’s turning out to be a small group of thirty- and fortysomething women who alternate meetings at each other’s houses, and the name they’ve chosen gives an idea of the tone: “Books, Booze and Banter.”

I made the mistake of not getting involved right at the start; I wanted to hang back and see what kind of books they’d choose. This means I wasn’t part of the early process of putting titles in a hat, so I’ve looked on snobbishly for several months as they lurched between crime and women’s fiction, genres I generally avoid. (Still, there were actually a couple books I might have joined them for had I not been in America and had they been readily available at the public library.) For many people a book club selection will be the only book they get through that month, so I can understand how they’d want it to be something ‘readable’ that they’d be happy to pick up anyway. Even though statistically I read 27 books a month, I’m still jealously protective of my reading time; I want everything I read to be worthwhile.

So for September I managed to steer the group away from a poorly received historical novel of over 400 pages and the new Joël Dicker and onto Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, which the bookstore chain Waterstones has been promoting heavily as one of their books of the month. I already had a charity shop copy in hand and the others liked the sound of it, so we’re all set for September 12th! Future months’ literary fiction choices look promising, too, so provided I enjoy the discussion and the camaraderie I plan to stick with it: a backlist Pat Barker novel I’ve not read, and Kirsty Logan and Jonathan Coe novels I’ve read before and won’t reread but will remind myself about briefly before the meetings.

I’m out of practice with this book club thing. My mother tells me that I have a lot to contribute but that I must also be open to what I’ll learn from other people – even if I don’t expect to. So I don’t want to set myself up as some kind of expert. In fact, I probably won’t even mention that I’m a freelance book reviewer and book blogger. Mostly I’m hoping to find some friendly faces around the neighborhood, because even though we’ve lived here just over two years I still only know a handful of names and keep myself to myself as I work from home. Even if I have to read books I wouldn’t normally, it’ll be worth it to meet more people.

 

What has your experience with book clubs (in person and online) been?

41 thoughts on “My Patchy Experience with Book Clubs

    1. It certainly is. Most days I don’t leave the house or see anyone apart from my husband, the cat and the postman. Some days that’s how I like it; other days I feel like that tree fallen in the woods — do I have to be seen to know I exist and matter?!

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  1. Sounds like you’re going in with the right attitude. I can barely keep up with the books on my TBR, so I don’t do book clubs, but I understand many are more for the socializing than to get at some greater communal truth through critiquing a shared book. And it would irk me too much, if I was the only one who’d actually read the thing!

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    1. Apparently the two founding rules of the club I’m joining are: 1) try to turn up, and 2) try to read the book. Those seem like good basics! I know what you mean about the TBR; I’ll feel slightly resentful if reading books I’m not all that interested in for book club are taking time away from the books I really want to read. I’ll just have to see if the socializing aspect makes up for it.

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  2. Like you, I tend to find book clubs unfruitful: no doubt this is partly snobbery, but it seems rare to get people in them who have similar analytical abilities, and I have zero interest in criticism that starts and ends with “I liked it/I didn’t like it/the characters felt so real”. The one book club that did feel quite promising was one that I started at Mumsnet, along with a couple of other younger women who worked there. Our first book was Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn and the discussion was actually great (over lunchtime burgers in the pub, no less), but I left the job the very next month, so it didn’t last long!

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    1. I suppose I can try to draw people out with leading questions about what they didn’t like, why such-and-such a character worked, etc. (But without being a snob or making myself out to be the expert! I’m thinking maybe I shouldn’t tell people it’s my 8th Tyler novel, and all the similarities it has to her other books … unless other people also know her work and seem keen.)

      Even blog comment threads can be the level of analysis I’m hoping for — I wish things like shadow panels were easier to sustain and we could all find ways of meeting up. That would be my ideal. You and your colleagues must have a casual book club of sorts every day? 🙂

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  3. I love my bookgroup. It’s run by the local independent bookshop, and the only rule is that we have to buy the current book – at a 20% discount. The choices are varied and eclectic, and by no means always ‘safe’. Perhaps the secret is that, though we’ve come to know the other members, and like them, we are not a group of friends. We have a variety of ages and backgrounds. There are even men in the group! So our sessions never degenerate into gossip, and we usually have an hour or more’s fruitful discussion. It’s a monthly date to prioritise in my diary.

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    1. That’s interesting. Because it’s based around the shop rather than a neighbourhood or existing friend circle, it’s not a clique. Do you have any say in future books, or do the staff always choose? I have to admit I wouldn’t take part in such a scenario because I don’t buy new books; I’d only participate if I could get a library or secondhand copy. What have been some of your most discussion-provoking reads?

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  4. Oh I relate to this. I participated in some library book clubs (as a patron, I don’t work at one) and they were good, but, they were lead by a librarian so didn’t have the casualness or sponteneity of a real book club. I’ve been invited to join a neighbourhood book club, but like yours, they basically read commercial fiction that I’m (generally) not interested in. I guess that’s why we went up online 🙂

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    1. My mom has been to various library and church book clubs over the years. I’ve considered trying a library one but worry it wouldn’t be my thing (demographic and otherwise). I’m hoping I can gently steer the group more in the literary fiction direction without them even noticing…it seemed to work for the Sept.-Dec. picks, so we’ll see!

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  5. I’ve been a member of two groups. One is quite highbrow. The other was lowbrow! For the highbrow one we create a list of book suggestions then all get two ticks, the book or books with the most ticks is the one we read. We take it in turns to have our say. Though sometimes more dominant members of the group talk over or dismiss the view of others. We all agree that we are all different and what works for one doesn’t work for someone else. It’s rare that we all love/hate the book. We read a huge range of stuff. We meet every two to three months when the organiser is free, she is a very busy lady.
    The other group was mostly about socialising and the books came a poor second, which I found frustrating. I religiously read the picks but I didn’t always get to have my say. We never found the best way of selecting reads so were quite often dissatisfied with our choices. The group has now folded.
    I’m not always great at explaining how I feel about a book, but I’m working on it. I miss my Mum for bouncing ideas around with as we used to read the same books.
    This year I have been doing the Penguin Challenge, where they suggest a theme for each month. I think that could work for a book group. Everyone suggests a book within that theme and let everyone tick a choice. Might help to keep things varied.

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  6. It will be a great opportunity to get to know some of your neighbors better if nothing else! I really liked Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, by the way. It’s one I don’t forget, and some of hers tend to run together. I hope it goes well for you! My book group experience has been mostly good, and I think it’s all about the chemistry of the group. Some people left our group a couple of years ago, and they were the ones least likely to either attend or read the book. Dear people, but not great book group members. Then a few new people came in and they are real readers and it has made all the difference!

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    1. I’m glad to hear Ladder of Years is a stand-out Tyler; you never know with her books. The fact that it’s been reissued/championed by a big bookstore over here had to be a good sign, though.

      I hope that it will be clear to me quickly whether this group dynamic works…and if not, that I can quietly leave after trying it for a month!

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  7. I belong to two clubs, both meeting in a bookshop. The one has just one rule (the book has to be paperback). Choices are made based on suggestions from the members who take it in turn to nominate a few options which are then voted on by whoever is there that month. The idea is that whoever suggests the book leads the discussion on it. Some people take that very seriously and prepare good discussion topics. But one lady had nothing at all to say about her choice other than she thought it was a fun read. (sigh).

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    1. The reason I was able to butt in and suggest Anne Tyler was that the club’s next two selections were still only in hardback and someone said she wouldn’t normally buy a hardback. I will have to see if there is any clear leadership — perhaps the person who hosts that month will try to be prepared with some background info?

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  8. I was part of one about ten years ago which was fairly successful, we read widely and had a lot of discussion but everyone apart from me was retired. I recently visited my sister and she took me along to her group which is a bunch of mums she knows from my nephews school. They spent ten minutes talking about the book then two hours drinking wine and talking about kids, work and school. Not what I want but I don’t blame them for wanting to get out the house and have someone to gossip to and get support from. I’m trying online book groups at the moment and find there is a lot less pressure to read a book I don’t like but I do think real life clubs are a good way to make friends and I should probably get out there. Let us know how it goes.

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    1. That’s why I’ve been reluctant to join a library book club — I presume most of the members would be retirees. I think most of these neighborhood ladies will be within 5-10 years of my age either side, which seems more like it.

      Blogs, Goodreads comments and readalongs (Twitter, etc.) can be great ways of discussing books, I agree. I won’t give those up. I just hope the socializing will be an added bonus of the in-person club.

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  9. I joined a group excitedly in London as I was going to meet new people, yay! Then the first meeting I went to they said, OH, x person has said they will host it at their home and it was in my block of flats – I didn’t even have to go to ground level to get there, and the guy was in his dressing gown because I was early. Argh! We read two HORRIBLE books (Unbearable Lightness of Being and a John Banville with a murder in it) and it was run by a cabal with no one else allowed to choose,and it folded.

    I joined another one to do with a cafe I used to frequent – that had a mixed membership – men! Ethnically diverse! but I just didn’t like the books they chose – light and trendy novels, from memory.

    I was a member of BookiesToo, an online group that read a book a fortnight and you could dip in and out – that was fun but people tended to have quite a shallow and personal reaction to the book (I worried about y character afterwards) which I tend not to go in for so much. SNOB ALERT! But that was fun and I made a dear friend from it.

    I much prefer being part of readalongs like the ones Ali’s done, the ones I’ve done through LIbraryThing Virago Group and indeed my own ones. I work better in writing, too, of course. I have even resisted joining a feminist book group run by Ali and some other friends of mine!

    Having said all that, it’s cool you might get to meet some more people in your area and get out and about a bit more (I use running club to keep me socialised!) and look forward to hearing more about it. I wouldn’t mention I was an editor, reviewer and book blogger, because people can get intimidated – I realised that when I found people worry about putting typos in comments on my blog posts and Facebook posts. What?? But it’s there. Have fun! And a good choice, too.

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    1. These are great stories, especially the London flat 🙂 You should definitely join Ali & Co.!

      Good point — I’ll try to keep quiet about my work life 😉 I think at least one of the other ladies works from home. I’ll be interested to hear what she does.

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  10. Until I moved away, I was in a wonderful book group in Brighton. I made lifelong friends and discovered some fantastic authors during that time. We’d take it in turns to host, and choose book titles, and the only rules were that the books had to be out in paperback and we had to have not already read them.
    The discussion of each book was organic rather than structured, and it sometimes got heated too! There was plenty of off-topic chat too, which I enjoyed, as being a mum with small children at the time, it was my only evening out during the month.
    Since moving to Wales I’ve missed being part of a book group so I’ve recently started one up. So far, it’s been tricky getting people to commit, although when we have got together we’ve had fruitful discussions. It’s made me realise how lucky I was in Brighton!

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  11. I love my book group. Been in it since 2004, and it had been going for several years before that. Our members come and go and include a couple of blokes which is lovely. We meet in the pub, and we don’t hold back on our views of the chosen book. We’re picking by theme at the mo – we choose a key word to research, then members pitch their choice – then we move to a random draw if no one book leaps out at us. It works rather well. Periodically, as people move and change jobs etc, we put out a call via our local FB page for new members. We do choose some quite eclectic books as you’ll see on our list on my blog’s Book Group page.

    Good luck with yours. I like the two rules – I’d add a third to encourage no 2 – 3) There will probably be spoilers in our discussion, so do try to read the book!

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    1. I knew you had a longstanding club, and I love the sound of the recent themes you’ve done, like the colours. Meeting in the pub is a great idea! Unless it gets too noisy for conversation sometimes?

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  12. I love this post, which definitely reflects much of my experience with book clubs! Particularly love your mum’s advice – story of my life :p I’ve been in two book clubs – one with the neighbours in the little hamlet where I lived as a teenager, which was predictably rubbish, and my current one in Newcastle which is women-only and only reads books by people of colour. The latter has been brilliant for interesting book choices but the discussion isn’t always that focused on the book.

    I think my problem with book groups is that I often like to discuss books by thinking about how they sit in relation to other books – whereas most people who come to the group read very few books a year and so don’t have this frame of reference. This isn’t a criticism of those people at all (I’m on the other side of this when people talk about film and TV – I’ve often only seen one thing and can’t link it to anything else!) but I think it’s why I get so much out of online discussions with other book bloggers.

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    1. That’s a good point — I’m always comparing books to similar things I’ve read. Choosing readalikes is basically my favourite part of writing Kirkus and BookBrowse reviews, and I usually try to mention at least one similar book or author in my blog reviews. People have told me that’s really helpful. However, every time I’ve written a review for TLS (I say every time, but it’s only four so far) and mentioned a few other books as context, those references invariably got cut. I asked an editor about it and she said they prefer to focus on the book itself, and such comparisons aren’t generally necessary. So I’ve had to adjust to that!

      Limiting your selections in a particular way (e.g. people of colour) must be a helpful way to cut down what could seem like endless options. Do you tend to read recent stuff, or also classics?

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      1. It tends to be pretty recent. By far the ‘oldest’ thing we’ve read is our current read, Sula, which I suggested! The last few books before that were Persepolis, Pachinko and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (this was a mistake as somebody thought it was written by a person of colour!!)

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  13. Good luck with your new book group – well done for steering them away from that historical novel. Ladder of Years is a great choice. I always think book group choices are best kept under about 350 pages. Book groups are great for meeting interesting people though, it’s just about finding the right group probably. I’m in a small feminist book group, (my third try at a book group) there was once only four of us now there’s eight but generally only 5 or 6 make it to meetings. Small is definitely good. Other book groups I have joined have not suited me, I became frustrated with the choices. My current group have picked things by Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Taylor Elizabeth von Arnim as well as more modern feminist writers. Still I have been taken outside my comfort zone, and decided not to read things that frankly looked terrible. I don’t do that often (twice in 3 years) Your 27 books a month is impressive – I read 9-11 books a month and hate having to read something I don’t want to. Several things have been unexpected hits and that is exciting.

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    1. I’ll have to hope my previous experience — of people not getting through the book even if it was only 200 or so pages — doesn’t recur! I know that for a lot of people committing to even one book per month would be a big ask.

      Your club sounds wonderful! Must get Liz to join in 😉 I have heard that 12 is a good upper limit. My mother enquired about the book club at her new retirement home and was told they had 10 members and didn’t want any more. I can understand, but it’s a shame to turn people away. I think she’ll look into a public library club instead.

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  14. I think in your circumstances, you should look at this group as a ‘new friends group who happen to do some reading on the side’. Going into it with a focus on the relationships you might form, as opposed to good books you might read, might be helpful!

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    1. That sounds like a great attitude to have. I definitely don’t ‘need’ to read any more books in a month, whereas for some of the members it might encourage them to actually do some regular reading for the first time in a while. If I have to put up with a few duds/DNFs along the way, it’ll be worth it to meet some friendly faces and feel like more a part of the neighbourhood.

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  15. I think because I read so much, I expect that events structured about books are going to be a way to meet like-minded people who will understand my obsession, but more often it’s as Kate has said, these are people who “also like to read” but they have a bunch of other interests as well, so, at least, this seems terribly disappointing, to not find a group of bizarrely-bookish soul-mate-types. Now I try to adjust my expectations in these situations as well, and just take it as something social to do with an angle that makes me feel comfortable. I’ve had a couple of good bookclub experiences but now I am enjoying the online scene. Like you, I appreciate the relaxed scene of being able to engage when I’m ready to focus on the book and to be able to take time with my thoughts. The local branch of the library has been advertising a new club this year, though: perhaps I should give it another try. I hope the group enjoys Anne Tyler – if they gang up on you, it could get ugly. (KIdding!)

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    1. I guess I need to advertise for a “die-hard readers” book club 😉 Online reading communities like blogs, Twitter and Goodreads do seem to be the most reliable way to meet fellow book addicts, though it’s certainly different from meeting in person.

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  16. Good luck with the book club and hope it turns out to be something positive. I prefer the less structured approach of book blogging which I think of as a “book appreciation club” without a schedule of set books (apart from the occasional shadow panel, of course).

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