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How to Keep Your Book Club From Becoming a Wine Club

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 9/13/2022 Emma Sarappo
© The Atlantic

Imagine this familiar scenario: A book club has decided to meet at an appointed time and place. A host has lit candles, set wine and cheese on a table, arranged chairs in a circle, and put on background music. The guests arrive, maybe holding hardcovers with stiff spines or library-laminated dust jackets. The room fills with chatter as attendees grab their glasses and sit. Then there’s some silence, some twiddling of thumbs, some sipping. Finally, the truth comes out: No one has read the book. Maybe the readers skimmed the title in question but found it boring. Maybe this is the second, or the fifth, month in a row this has happened. Someone might break the tension by asking another member about their job, or relationship, and soon the whole affair devolves into a social meetup, or—worse—things go quiet. Perhaps the club stops meeting altogether, or the gatherings end up so off-course, the group may as well just have gotten dinner together, no reading involved.

This scene is recognizable for a reason: Running a book club is hard. The format combines a social obligation with, essentially, adult homework. Even journalists who cover books are susceptible to this pattern. Like many others, I attempted to start a book club in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. I was home all the time with little to do other than read; I had a willing group of my best friends on board; we’d made a schedule and discussed titles. And probably like a significant chunk of clubs that had started similarly, ours flopped very quickly. We struggled to decide what to read, had a hard time meeting consistently, and eventually abandoned the enterprise altogether.

[Read: The exquisite pain of reading in quarantine]

Where did we go wrong? And how can we set ourselves up for success in the future? More important, what would that even look like? To find out, I spoke with booksellers, librarians, professors, and other professionals in the literary world. Their advice varied, but they all agreed on a few major themes.

Be specific.

A good way to attract the right people to your club—and keep them focused—is to be up-front about what you’re going to read and what your goals are. With the sheer number of books in the world, and more released every year, going too broad can sow chaos. (Part of the reason my friends and I struggled to finalize our choices was our anything-goes attitude toward suggesting titles.) My Nguyen, a librarian at the District of Columbia Public Library, runs three book clubs with clear mandates: In one, members read Shakespeare plays; in another, they read International Booker Prize winners; and in The Intimidating Book Club, readers sign up to get through challenging classics—the group has finished Middlemarch, Moby-Dick, and The Brothers Karamazov. And Hannah Oliver Depp, the owner of Loyalty Bookstores in D.C. and Silver Spring, Maryland, runs a club that has been making its way through Agatha Christie’s work for three years.

A clear format tells attendees what to expect. But don’t get too in the weeds: “Try to be as original as possible, yet not so idiosyncratic that people are like, ‘What is this?’” said Shawn McDermott, another DCPL librarian who runs a cookbook book club. (In that group, members read a cookbook every month, and McDermott prepares food for participants to share.)

Picking the right book is important …

Everyone I talked with had opinions on how to pick a book to read, but most agreed that a good book-club book isn’t necessarily one that everyone in the group will love. When you choose a book, you should exercise what librarians call “reader’s advisory,” which Ron Bergquist, an associate professor of information and library science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, defines as being “able to understand what readers want to read even if they can't quite articulate what it is”—and even if it clashes with your own taste. This mindset is crucial when you are in a club with friends whose preferences differ from your own, as I was. I desperately wanted to read Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, but acknowledged that her unique, internet-addled style doesn’t work for everyone. Instead, as a group of 20-something women, we agreed on Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade, a 2012 book arguing that ages 20 to 29 are crucial to setting up future success and happiness. I’m not typically a pop-psych reader, but putting myself in my group mates’ shoes helped me find something that would spark discussion.

… But don’t overthink it.

Stressing too much about choosing the perfect title is unhelpful. Instead, the selection should get people talking, even if they dislike or disagree with it, Oliver Depp said. (Predictably, Jay’s style didn’t speak to me.) And it doesn’t need to be particularly popular or well known: Elisabeth Egan, who writes a monthly literary column, “Group Text,” at The New York Times, said that she tries to pick “the unsung heroes”—titles that might be unexpected. Egan sums up and comments on the book, then provides discussion questions and other suggested reading, so her column functions as a kind of “starter pack” for book clubs. Other simple tips I picked up: Make a scheduled reading list and choose something available in paperback—they’re easier to carry and might be more widely stocked at stores and libraries.

Nail down the cadence.

When deciding how often you’ll meet, think about how much time everyone has to commit to reading. Most of the people I talked with described meeting once a month, though you can adjust for your group’s needs. Erica Parker, the manager of adult programming at the New York Public Library, emphasized that having a consistent meeting time is a “key element,” so that members can build it into their schedules. Leaving too much time in between meetings can be counterproductive, even if it seems like it’ll give members more time to finish a title. (This may have been one of my own club’s greatest weaknesses, I learned; we scheduled our meetings nine weeks apart.)

Have a facilitator.

To keep things organized and on-topic, some experts like Nguyen strongly suggested appointing someone to lead the discussion. Their role is, essentially, to protect the group, she said. With someone in charge, the conversation is less likely to be derailed by a talkative participant, and interruption can be handled politely. A leader can also prepare and ask open-ended questions, which are especially helpful when what you’ve read has a lot to unpack. “Creating a supportive environment is a big part of making sure that there’s buy-in for books that might be a little bit more dense or challenging,” Parker told me. With someone guiding the analysis, there’s less potential for awkward silences. Still, “silence is an excellent educational tool,” even when it’s uncomfortable, so you shouldn’t shun those moments entirely, Nguyen warned. A good facilitator will realize that and make space for things to sink in.

[Read: Why some people become lifelong readers]

It’s okay to not finish the book.

The classic horror story—a room full of people who haven’t read the selection—might seem like a scenario to be avoided at all costs. But someone who didn’t finish (or, in some cases, start) can still show up and contribute valuable thoughts to the discussion. “We do really encourage people engaging with the content in whatever way makes sense for them,” Parker told me. And not getting to the end shouldn’t be shameful, Egan said. “You don’t hesitate to switch stations on the radio when you’re driving in the car and hear a song you don’t like … I’ve always had a strict no-guilt policy. If it doesn’t work for you, and you’ve given it its fair shake, onward to the next book.”

If people haven’t read the book, Nguyen said, that’s an opportunity to “read it together out loud, maybe slowly, and then stop and say … ‘How did you experience this paragraph?’ Or ‘What do you think this title means?’” Not finishing isn’t a disaster—but finishing is worth celebrating, too, even if it’s a book you disliked. For me, that was The Silent Patient, by Alex Michaelides (we’ll be ready for the film adaptation, at least).

The most important thing is connection.

“I think people put so much pressure on themselves to make sure that … they have the right food and it’s the right selection and people aren’t going to feel like they wasted time,” Shannon DeVito, Barnes & Noble’s director of books, told me. But what readers really want is “to connect with people and to learn more about each other through a fictional lens,” she said. And you don’t have to have an identity as a reader to get something out of meetings: Anyone can forge a connection with their fellow group members if they give it an honest shot, DeVito explained.

What I wanted from my book club was to come together with my friends, even though we were separated from one another by geography and the threat of illness. Even though we didn’t last long, thinking about the same challenges, mulling over the same twists, and showing up to talk about them was valuable. Reading was just a pretense to get us all in the same Zoom room. So here’s the last piece of advice I got: Even if your meetings come to an end, cherish the conversations you did have. The most important part of a book club is the club, not the books.

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