Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving

How to successfully start and run a book group

In 2007 I moved interstate while 7 months pregnant to a city where I only knew two people. Frequently on my mind was the question How do I make new friends? Few times in one’s life are more isolating than living in a new town with a new baby! The idea took grip to start a book group. Each person that I met in those first few months, I asked whether they like to read, how often they read and what sorts of books. If they had similar reading habits to me then I would ask whether they would join a book group, if I was to start one. Once it seemed like I was reaching a critical mass with interest in the concept I organised a get together on a sunny spring afternoon and over a delicious afternoon tea we discussed starting a book group. We have met every month since August 2007 and the group has continued to grow. In that time I’ve joined two other book groups, both of which are flops, so I decided to write a post on the ingredients for a successful book group:

An eclectic mix of the books that we have read so far: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

An eclectic mix of the books that we have read so far: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

  1. Make it a permanent day of the month and a time of that day, e.g. last Sunday of the month at 2pm, and stick to it. That eliminates the to-ing and fro-ing that inevitably occurs if a group of busy people attempt to negotiate every month on a mutually agreeable day to meet that month. In my group, about once a year the host has been unable to host on the last Sunday afternoon of the month so we’ve moved it by a week or in a couple of instances had an evening meeting mid-week but it’s best if these are exceptions and not the rule;
  2. Take turns to host the meeting and choose the book each month – this takes away the annoying need to democratically choose a book together which I’ve observed can cause apathy and disinterest in the book. It also removes the need to choose a restaurant/cafe together. Book groups aren’t democracies! We host the meetings in our homes and the person that is hosting chooses the book;
  3. Fix an order of hosting/choosing and stick to it – this removes the need to deliberate over whose turn it is next. I administer a spreadsheet that records date, host, author and book title so that no disputes can occur over whose turn it is to host next and whether a book has already been read;
  4. Keep a list of what has been read – this makes it easy for new and existing members to know what’s already been chosen and take that into account before making a selection. When someone new joins the group I circulate the spreadsheet as a way to notify them of the pre-existing order of hosting/choosing and to peruse the eclectic mix of books read so far;
  5. Establish some basic rules at the first meeting – our rules are: a) that we go around the circle and each person gets a chance to express themselves without being interrupted before we break into open discussion. This helps the introverts in the group to have a chance to be heard and the confidence to speak freely without fear of interruption, b) the book has to have some merit to allow discussion, i.e. no chick lit!;
  6. Give plenty of notice about the book choice – choose a secretary who is responsible for administering the list and notifying the next host that their turn is approaching and that they need to let the group know of their chosen book. I hold that role in my book group and I let the next person know at least one month in advance and ask that they give the group plenty of time to find the book in time to read it before the meeting;
  7. Select books that are readily available – otherwise few people will get to read it in time for the meeting!;
  8. No children allowed at the meeting who don’t need to breastfeed! – let’s face it, children are the antithesis to true conversation with their incessant and boisterous interrupting! Most of the members of my group has had a new baby since we started in 2007 and we’ve brought along the baby (interestingly never more than 1 at each meeting) to breastfeed but as soon as that isn’t needed any longer we leave the children with their father and go off to have a glorious afternoon of conversation, fine food and wine; and
  9. Bring a plate or bottle to share – this allows each member to feel they have contributed and takes the pressure off the host who has already had to clean their house ready for the meeting! We meet on Sunday afternoons and share a delicious and varied afternoon tea together coupled with a cup of tea or glass of champagne. How decadent!
knitted toy, penguin, thank you gift

The super cute penguin that my dear friend knitted for me to thank me for running book group

Diversity is the key! My book group started with about 8 members. Over the years some people have left the group and others have joined. Many of the members of the group have invited a new acquaintance to join the group and these new members tend to invigorate the discussion. Some of the foundation members can get concerned when there’s an influx of new members because it does interrupt the vibe of the group but even though we’ve had 5 new members join this year we’ve now settled into a new comfortable groove and everyone is loving meeting once a month. When new people join the group I organise a social gathering separate to book group and we go to a restaurant for a nice dinner together and get to know each other better. We are fortunate in our group to have people from a mixture of different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, nationalities, religions and cities. This diversity leads to much richer discussion than we would have if everyone had the same background as me!

When we read a particularly complex book I like to prepare some slides to summarise the main points of the book, particularly to disambiguate stories that jump around different times and places like Cloud Atlas. I’m a scientist and I do marketing as part of my job so of course I think that slides are a great idea. I must admit however that no-one else in my group has prepared any slides!

A typical meeting goes for about 3 hours. At the beginning of the meeting we chat informally while waiting for all of the members to arrive. Next we go around the circle, speaking one at a time without interrupting and then we have general discussion about the book and associated ideas. As I gaze around the circle I see looks of genuine pleasure on the faces of my friends and acquaintances in my book group. It really is a joy to each of us to belong to the book group and it’s an enriching and heartwarming experience that we get to share every month. One member even knitted me a penguin to thank me for starting and running the book group because she enjoys it immensely.


5 comments on “How to successfully start and run a book group

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