About 14 years ago I formed a book group with about a dozen other young mothers whose children all attended the same co-op preschool. We have since grown to about 22 women who now, lamentably, must dig out our reading glasses if we want to read an excerpt aloud, but otherwise not much has changed.
The genesis for our group was a night meeting focused on self-improvement, during which our teacher asked us to list something we had given up since becoming a mother. One of the women mentioned she had stopped reading novels after her sons were born and felt lucky to read a page or two from a magazine in the bathroom. Murmurs of sympathy filled the room with many heads nodding in agreement. Before long, someone mentioned the idea of forming a book group, and since I was the only one who had ever belonged to one of these, I was put in charge of organizing things.
Now this was back in the days when Oprah was more concerned about her weight than the latest Toni Morrison novel, so nobody really knew exactly what you did in a book group besides, well… discuss books. Like any group there are logistics to be decided. You can’t all just show up one night and start rehashing the latest John Grisham novel.
As mentioned previously, I had briefly belonged to a book group in a former life, so I adopted the CASE method (copy and steal everything) and followed the protocol we used there since it had seemed to work just fine. Here’s what we did:
The first night we met, I presented two books to the group and asked members to vote on which book they wanted to read for the next meeting. The way I presented the books was to briefly summarize the plot and read a pre-selected sample aloud from each of them. The books were then passed around so that people could flip through the pages; then we took a vote to see which book would be chosen.
We have not veered from this strategy since the group began, which means it is either a great method or we are mulishly stuck in our ways. I would argue the former as this method ensures a wide variety of genres are chosen. A different person presents the book choices at each meeting, each with her own genre and style preferences. This strategy also wards against overly opinionated people dictating what everyone else will read. Whoever presents the book is the host of the book club the night that book is discussed. As such they are also in charge of refreshments, which used to mean a few cut up vegetables, maybe some chips, and some cookies or cake for afterward.
One thing that has changed dramatically over the years has been the food. Since most of the women now have outside jobs and no time to eat dinner (we meet at 7), the refreshments must now include some dinner type entrée in addition to the finger foods and desserts. A few really good cooks somehow snuck into the group, creating an unrealistically high standard of edibility, but some of us still rely on Trader Joe’s and other helpful purveyors of already-cooked food and refuse to be intimidated.
In addition to supplying the food and space, the host is also in charge of leading the discussion. We do not have set rules on how to do this. Some of our more laid back members smile hopefully and ask “So what did you think?” while the more neurotically prepared (this would include me) usually have a biography of the author to present and a carefully researched list of thought provoking questions. We tend to shy away from relying on the book group guides ubiquitously found in the back of “quality” books these days as it is too much like baking cake from a mix.
Although the book discussion may not always follow our prepared line of questions, the questions are good to have as back up in case people are feeling less loquacious than usual. This is rarely a problem in our group. I once copied an idea out of the Utne Reader and had people use a talking stick. When a member had possession of the stick it was her turn to reflect on one of my profound questions; then she passed the stick to the woman on her left. Usually there was a lot of cross talk between the time the woman spoke and the stick was passed, but what I liked about this method was our quieter members had a chance to speak up without having to dive into an ongoing discussion.
Our book discussions usually last anywhere from one to two hours, depending on the meatiness and controversiality of the book. Our most despised books have engendered some of the best discussions, whereas one book that everyone thoroughly enjoyed, Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker, provided little grist for the conversational mill. We all said how much we liked it and made a few comments, but that was about it. One of our members possesses very strong opinions, most of which are negatively inclined to the books we read, and we always look forward to her panning the livre du mois in her particularly scathing way.
We sometimes go the extra mile for our books. Once we were lucky enough to host the author of our book, who turned out to be local. It was a thrill to be in her presence, let alone ask her questions. We have also caught Yann Martel, Maya Angelou and Anne Fadiman on the lecture circuit after reading Life of Pi, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, respectively. In addition, the host will sometimes match refreshments to the book. For instance, we had a savory Indian meal when we read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, a Tuscan feast when we read Under the Tuscan Sun… well, you get the drift.
Our book group meets every six weeks, which leaves plenty of time to read the book and maybe squeeze in one or two more. Not everyone shows up, which is good because 22 people need a lot of chairs or floor space. We have talked about limiting the group to no more than 20, but then someone has a friend who would be “just perfect” and we bend the rules. Yet some of our best book groups meetings have been those that were lightly attended as the smaller size provides more intimacy and makes it less intimidating for people to express their viewpoints.
Having just said all these wonderful things about my book group, I do sometimes wish I had the complete freedom to read whatever I desired and not feel constricted by the whim of the majority. But when I think of all the books I would not have read, the interesting discussions I would not have engaged in, and the
special blend of humor and wisdom I would have missed, the tradeoff is worth it. Besides, when I really don’t like a book I give myself permission not to finish it, and sometimes I have been fascinated to hear how much others liked the book I found to be so insufferably dull.