A few years ago a friend of mine gathered a bunch of us together and started a book club. I’d never belonged to one before, and it was pretty fantastic. We met every few weeks for a couple of years and read some things I loved (East of Eden), liked (Vernon God Little), disliked (The Periodic Table), and hated (The Last Crossing). Eventually the club fizzled.

Back at the beginning of this year I made a very conscious effort to strike more balance in my life after several years of prioritizing work over pretty much everything else. I was burnt out, exhausted, bereft of creativity, and my lifelong habit of reading fiction had suffered significantly (the decline started almost immediately when I started writing my first crochet book). I desperately wanted to get back into reading but had lost touch with how I’d even discovered books that interested me. And then I remembered that my friends have many and varied tastes, and so I sent out an email suggesting we start up our book club again. Now I’m back in my normal groove of always having a novel on my nightstand.

Apparently, October is National Reading Group Month, so I though I’d write a little about how we run our book club, in case you’re looking to join or start one. After reading some of what author Joshua Henkin* has written about his experiences visiting dozens of book clubs, I have the impression we do things a little differently from what might be considered to be the norm. But it works very well for us, and anyway norms tend to be overrated.

Back at the beginning, I asked everyone who was interested in joining to send me one or two titles they wanted the group to consider. I compiled plot summaries of the ten submitted books and sent them out to the couple dozen people on my list and asked them to let me know the following:

  1. Which books from the list they’d already read or had no interest in reading for book club
  2. Their top 2 choices from the list
  3. Which evenings are never good for them to get together (not dates, just days of the week)
  4. Their top 2 evenings for getting together

I laid out some other ground rules (asking people not to reply-all to the emails to save everyone from book-club email burnout, and some other stickler items), set a date, and that was that.

We meet about every six weeks, at a volunteer’s house (as long as they live close enough to the center of town that most of us can easily get there after work). The person who initially put the chosen book on the list for consideration leads the discussion about it. We usually have a pot luck dinner (if possible, loosely based on any food themes from the book).

A couple of days before we meet, I ask if anyone has a title they want to add to the list for consideration for our next book. Then I recompile the list and send it out again for voting, which works the same way it did the first time around (except we only revisit good days of the week every few months). Most times, I’m ready to announce the next book during our meeting; then I follow up with an email containing all the details and the next meeting date.

Over time I’ve removed some books from the list. I do so either if a few people have already read them, or if several people say they aren’t interested in reading them for book club.

So far we’ve read a fairly wide assortment of novels, and because we choose them from a “living” list and not under pressure of time, we’ve inadvertently avoided fad books and have instead chosen from amongst titles new and old and of varying sorts.

Things I’ve been picking up on as we go:

  • It’s tempting to vote for a book you want to have read. But this isn’t a good way of picking a book you actually want to read now (see the whopping two people who manged to read all of The Satanic Verses in time for the meeting. [I was not one of them. {*cough* I didn’t vote for it, though.}])
  • Insisting that attendees have read the book in its entirety in order to attend the meeting might strike some as harsh, but they’ll deal. The quality of discussion when everyone present has read the book is worth it.
  • Food is always a good to have on hand. And maybe wine.

Here’s what we’ve read so far (links go to Goodreads, which is made of awesome):

  1. The Book of Stanley, by Todd Babiak (I thought this book was a couple hundred pages of missed opportunity. Only book I’ve ever read that made me want to be a literary editor; this book needed a good smacking around.)
  2. What is the What, by Dave Eggers (You must read this book. It is neck-and-neck with East of Eden for my #2 favourite book of all time. Powerful, powerful.)
  3. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie (I loved the first part of the book and lost interest when I got to the second.)
  4. After Dark, by Haruki Murakami (More of a novella. I liked it a lot.)
  5. Late Nights on Air, by Elizabeth Hay (A quiet book. Not stellar, but a beautiful portrait of the Canadian North.)
  6. Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje (This is our current read. I didn’t love it, but I liked it. And I keep thinking about it, which means I’ll end up revising to say I liked it a lot. I’m very much looking forward to our discussion of it.)

And the following are books I’ve read this year directly as a result of book club, but not for book club:

  • Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson (Because Spook Country is on our list.)
  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (No longer on our list, but I think it was initially. It’s possible I suggested it, too, but I can’t remember. Heh. Anyway, after it sat on my nightstand for a year, I read it and loved it and wanted to crawl into a depressed hole during most of it.)
  • Blindness, by Jose Saramago (For a time, Seeing was on our list.)

As far as I can recall (with the help of Goodreads), I read ten books in 2007. So far in 2008 I’ve read seventeen. That’s more like it.

Do you belong to a book club? How do you like it?

* I haven’t actually read his book yet. But I plan to. Eventually.

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