Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Book Clubs

For the longest time, I thought my books clubs were the only ones that had problems.  Then I bumped into a friend’s Facebook status, wherein she said (roughly):


“Time to go to my book club, where we will sit around, drink wine, and not talk about the book none of us finished.”


And that was when I knew that book clubs are, in general, a bit of a train wreck.


Now, granted, there might be a few really excellent book clubs out there, where everyone shows up on time, everyone has read the book from cover to cover, and the person who picked the book has put together a half-dozen questions that lead to lively, free-change chatting about themes of the book, the meaning of life, and so on.


I imagine most of these are populated by retirees with a lot of free time.


Having been in three book clubs that worked to varying degrees, however, I think there are ways that the average book club can at least approach a certain level of success.  About half of these I’m straight-out thieving from the woman who ran two of my book clubs.


Though I feel I must emphasize that even with these in place, the book clubs kept falling apart.  But I think that had a lot to do with these rules slipping over time.  And once the rules were gone, the book club croaked with them.


Let us proceed.


First:  Put a cap on book length.  Before I joined my first book club, the club in question had already imploded once before, because people gave little or no thought to how big the book should be.  At one point, someone chose the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.  That’s over 1000 pages of reading, and everyone had a month to accomplish it.  Needless to say, this book was the most often cited as the one that crushed the club.


A similar problem hit my third book club, when someone suggested everyone read the book 1491, which covers the history of America before Columbus arrived.  It’s 540 pages of small print.


No one read it except the guy who suggested it, and someone who found it in audiobook format.  Book length fail.


The original cap for the books was supposed to be 250 pages, but I think even that might be too long.  I’m quite sure there are a few hundred books under 200 pages.  I would start there.


And I repeat.  No drifting.  255 pages is probably okay.  But the very second someone suggests a 300-pager, nip it in the bud.


Second: Pick books that people might actually enjoy reading.  Fahrenheit 451 is perfect, because it’s a classic that has an actual story and interesting themes besides.


A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a terrible choice, because it’s boring, scattered, and reads like a series of emo blogs written by a pretentious teenager. 


Most of the true book fails seemed to occur when someone would pick the title of a book pretty much out of a hat because it sounded interesting, without ever laying eyes on the actual book.  To that end, there should probably be a sub-rule that before picking a book, the person making the selection first must read the opening 10 or 20 pages.


(Two quick stories about Portrait.  The book was so bad only two people at the club actually read it.  This led to no discussion at all, and the book club went to a movie instead.  The Godfather of Green Bay.  Which is a so-so movie that’s pretty entertaining if you live in Wisconsin.


(Second story: The guy who chose Portrait later made up for it by choosing The Cat in the Hat.  There a massive annotated book about Cat.  I wholeheartedly endorse talking about this book at your club.)


Third:  Someone needs to be the leader.  And that leader needs to send out reminders about the club night (and the book title) two weeks in advance, and one week in advance.


And then, the leader must find out who has actually read the book at that juncture.  If there’s a week to go and the answer is “no one?”  The club needs to be pushed off to another month.


The thing of it is, all of this needs to be handled well in advance, and between Facebook, email, and texting, it should be an easy thing.  But our clubs were constantly plagued with messages like, “Are we still meeting?  What’s the date again?  I haven’t been able to get my hands on the book!”


Fourth: Pick a meeting place, and make it the permanent meeting place.


Another troublesome question: “Where are we meeting?”


The thing of it is, yes, it’s nice for people to share the responsibility of hosting, but in reality, it just sucks.  Every month, you have to send out a new set of directions.  The distance might be impossible for some of the book club members.  (In one case, we had a 45 minute drive, it was winter, it was dark, and we had a little one.  Needless to say, that did not happen.)


By meeting in the same place every month, everyone knows how long it takes to get there as well, so no one is arriving 30 minutes late and horking up the discussion.


Fifth: Food.  There needs to be food. 


We did this kind of thing a few ways.  There were themed meals to go with the books, which was fun but could be a lot of work. 


Honestly, I’d say either meet up at a restaurant where it’s quiet enough to talk, or order pizza.  Potluck kind of works, but gets problematic in the main course area, which means someone is going to do a lot of work and probably spend way more than the person who brings a bag of chips.


Pizza, I say.


Sixth: Make sure the book is easy to get your hands on. 


On a couple of occasions, people picked books that were available free online.  Which is great, except most of us didn’t have Kindles or iPads, and subsequently no one wanted to read the book online. 


Some of these were so-called classics, which meant the library had one copy.  So one person got that, and everyone else had to pay money for a book they were only going to read once, if at all.


Finally, feel the need to once again suggest that the books selected are books that the people in the club actually want to read.  Yes, it can be “interesting” to do classics, but more often than not it gets frustrating and dull quickly.


I was once in a Jane Austen book club, and the thing of it is, she only wrote six books.  But they were all torture, and in the end a club that started with ten members slowly shrunk to four. 


I’ll grant you that not every book is going to please every person.  However, people in book clubs are far too prone to picking books that go down like medicine.  This will crush your club every time.


To get you started, here are a few books that led to great club nights:


Forever Changes: Brendan Halpin (Rated by many as the best book we’d ever read in the club.)

A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens (A classic, and most people know the story, which makes it a super-breezy read.)

Survivor: Chuck Palahniuk  (This one is a little longer than it should be for the club, but there’s lots to talk about and it goes by fast.)

Water for Elephants: Sara Gruen  (Also probably too long, but again, well-loved.)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Douglas Adams (Everyone read it.  The only problem was, the plot is so thin there isn’t a lot to discuss…)

The Road: Cormac McCarthy (Painfully depressing, but great discussion.)

Fahrenheit 451: Ray Bradbury (Ebooks make this one even more interesting.)

The Cat in the Hat: Dr. Seuss (I cannot emphasize how great the discussion was.)


As for complete failures:


1491 – Only two people finished it.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Again, two people.

Logan’s Run: Had interesting ideas, but the book itself isn’t all that well written, which turned it into a bit of a slog.

Lolita: A little controversy sounds like fun, but man, this was a tedious book. 


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