There is no one definition of a book club or right way to run it. Purists might think they should be only for reading and thoughtful conversation and even shun a chunk of pepperjack on the coffee table. Some book groups simply serve tea. Others relish the challenge of composing dinner menus relating to the book, with creative tablescapes to match.
Like long-term marriages, a monthly group that has been getting together for years can fall into a bit of a rut, or some members’ priorities may change. It’s worth checking in every once in a while and taking cues from some other inventive groups.
So, I surveyed some bibliophiles for ideas. I’ll also include one from my own 23-year-old club, where six of us discuss a book over cocktail hour and dinner (dessert is left for dishing on other things): We sometimes provide party favors, such as when we read “Circe” by Madeline Miller, and our hostess put Greek goddess laurel leaf headbands by each table setting. For the discussion of “There, There,” Tommy Orange’s debut novel of Native American stories, the host made a centerpiece of five cactus plants — and let members take them home.
Find the right mix
Doug Erickson, a university relations specialist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has been in a co-ed seven-person book group for 12 years. The most important part of a book club for him is the members. “You need to approach the membership of your book club with the precision, pragmatism and ruthlessness of the NFL draft. You can’t be sentimental. Be extremely wary of the overtalker and the mansplainer,” he says. “One blowhard can ruin the whole thing.” In his club, members take turns hosting, but no meal is served; it’s Sunday night drinks, light snacks and “a chocolate element.”
He says if you’re thinking of adding to your group, look for people who have an open mind, people who love reading so much that they will enjoy discussing a lousy book as much as a good one and people who are self-aware enough to know when to stop talking and relinquish the floor to someone else.
His group also sticks to this rule: Every April, they read whichever novel wins the Pulitzer for fiction.
Keep it casual, but be creative
Connor Massei loves to read, and so do some of his friends, so two years ago, they formed a book club. (The club is on Instagram @bookboysworldwide.) “None of us had any idea of what we were doing, and we didn’t even Google how we should run this,” says Massei, who lives in Arlington and is an account manager at a security company. The members, in their late 20s and early 30s, meet in one of the guy’s homes in Clarendon. “The food isn’t fancy,” Massei says. “Members show up with something, whether a bag of chips or a charcuterie board and some beer.” He says they like to get into the spirit of a book. When they read “The Sun Also Rises,” they toasted Ernest Hemingway with rum. “Sometimes we ask Alexa to play some tunes, like we asked for some Spanish music for Hemingway night,” he says. For “Hillbilly Elegy,” a couple of guys showed up with two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew. They FaceTime with members who are on the road so they can stay engaged. “I definitely look forward to it,” he says. “It’s certainly one of the best days of the month.”
Add some sparkle
Some clubs invite local authors to make guest appearances or have an annual quiz to see how much members recall about the books they read that year.
Michiel Perry, who runs the Black Southern Belle blog (blacksouthernbelle.com), thinks a creative table setting can add fun, but it shouldn’t create stress. She used to be in a book club, but with a newborn and a toddler, she’s taking a break. She thinks the food should be based on how much time the group has to commit to prep. That can change as people’s lives do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come up with a few literary decor touches. She recalls one book club meeting at which someone wrote out meaningful quotes from the book and arranged them around the table.
She has some ideas for when she has time to join a club again. She might want one with a focus on Southern cuisine and a playlist that includes Beyoncé and Tina Turner. On her blog, she recently posted a photo of a table set for an imaginary African American recipe book club dinner. At each place was a cookbook featuring a Southern black female chef.
Although she loves entertaining, Kaitlin Moss of the Every Hostess blog (theevery
hostess.com) thinks book clubs should “feel cozy and relaxed.” She says the vibe should reflect the feelings of the members. “It’s an engaging way to get people together, but there shouldn’t be any pressure,” she says. “Lighting candles and dimming the lights a bit makes people feel more comfortable.”
Change with the times
In 1997, Janet Douglas of Takoma Park, now retired from the Smithsonian, was part of a monthly potluck mother-
daughter book club. The girls were about 7 years old, and the moms were baby boomers. Back then, she says, there weren’t really any hard-and-fast rules. “We had many iterations,” Douglas says. They would talk about the book and do an activity or craft related to it. Later, girls acted out scenes they filmed using video cameras. When the girls were in high school, moms and daughters alternated choosing the reads. The club is still going, minus the daughters, who went on to college and their own book groups.
Today, Douglas says she has some new suggestions in mind for her club — perhaps predetermined discussion questions or new methods of choosing books that spark a good exchange of ideas. “I’m thinking having some rules is good,” Douglas says.
Take a moment
“The danger of a book club is that people assume they know what it is,” Parker says. The reality is that sometimes you need to change it up based on the members and their lives. “I think a lot of people get a lot out of their book club, but many are also frustrated by them,” she says.
Davina Morgan-Witts says adaptability is key for a long-lasting book club. She’s the founder of Book Browse
(bookbrowse.com), a website that recommends books and is a source for all things book clubs. The site suggests an annual check-in with members, an open discussion to see whether everyone is still on the same page about the length of the discussions, book choices, new members and refreshments. (Actually, stress from upping the food game and from judgy foodies in some clubs is one of the reasons people leave, Morgan-Witts says.)
On her site’s Book Club Health Check, you’ll find sample questions. “It’s really good to figure out what is working and what is not,” Morgan-Witts says. “Defining the rules of your group is important. Some people may be getting fed up of hearing only Brenda’s views every month.”
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