Not Your Mother's Book Club: 7 Tips for Reading with Friends

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Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

Post by contributor Ninna Gaensler-Debs

It was getting to the point where no one would go to bookstores with me -- and I spend a lot of time in bookstores. I wasn’t trying to be obnoxious; it was just that, as soon as I spied a familiar title, I couldn’t help spouting opinions, fun facts, or whatever else came into my little head. Shockingly, most people just want to pick out their own books without a running commentary, thank you very much, and I realized I needed another outlet to talk about the things I read.

I was initially vehemently opposed to joining any book clubs; in my mind such an act would be analogous to purchasing jeans with a stretchy waistband, or taking up scrapbooking (i.e. really lame -- sorry, scrapbookers). It took me a while to realize that book clubs don’t have to be lame. If I created my own book club, I could outlaw Twilight or 50 Shades of Gray or any tome with the phrases “heaving bosom” or “throbbing member.” If done right, a book club could actually function as it is supposed to: a space for great people to have interesting conversations about the things they read.

And so, Emperor Norton’s Literary Society was born. (If you don’t know who Emperor Norton was, read up on him here. He’s awesome). And so far, I think it’s been going pretty well. A couple of caveats: the club has only been around for a couple of months, and our last meeting has been delayed due to members (normal, non-throbbing) not reading the book in time. So we’re not perfect. But I think I’ve started to get the hang of what makes a good book club, and I thought I’d share my tips with you fine people.

1) Narrow your focus. You don’t have to have a theme (although we do -- we only read things that have some pertinence to the Bay Area). You might choose a genre, or even just what kind of books you will exclude (see above reference to Twilight).

2) Choose members carefully. You don’t want snarky know-it-alls (like myself...I mean...wait...), nor do you want people who will show up every week and say  “ummm, I read the first 17 pages...”. You definitely do want people who are enthusiastic about the idea of a book club because, if it starts to feel like homework, you can be sure that nobody will be reading the assigned pages. Speaking of assigned pages...


3) Be reasonable with expectations, but have some. Unless you have demi-god status readers in your midst, it is unlikely that Infinite Jest will be a great choice. Personally, I think it makes the most sense not to break up the book into pieces, but to have a meeting for each full book read. One book a month is not unreasonable, as long as it weighs less than 5 lbs. There will of course be meetings where people have not read the entire book, which is totally fine. What isn’t so fine is when it gets to a point that people sit there staring at each other until someone suggests just watching an episode of Game of Thrones instead because no one actually cared to read more than a chapter.

4) Pair food and drink with your readings. Honestly, this should probably be #1. For our first book, we read Cannery Row, so we had beer milkshakes (actually delicious, I promise), a sad-looking but great tasting ‘Happy Birthday Doc’ cake, and drank out of our interpretation of a ‘winin’ jug’ -- all of which feature in the book. Booze will always help people shrug off anxiety about public speaking. Plus, everyone likes to eat and drink things, and having a tangible element of the book helps make you feel more connected to the text. English professors take note: serve some clam chowder with Moby Dick; mint juleps with The Great Gatsby. Just you wait and see what impact those delectables have on attendance!

5) Always contextualize the reading. I realize this sounds a little like your AP English syllabus, but it’s essential. Have one person moderate each book discussion (and it’s probably best if that position rotates), and have her come with some information about the author, the period in which the book was written, etc. For example, if you’re going to read Ulysses, you probably want to have a working knowledge of Dublin’s geography, the Bible, The’s a tip: don’t read Ulysses.

6) Have some kind of consistent throughline. I think this is what will hold your club together. Maybe there’s one philosophical question you ask of every book, or maybe you do an interpretive dance based on each text. By doing this, you place each book within the larger narrative (see what I did there?!) of the club.

7) Don’t take it too seriously. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow.” Sure, it’s important to respect books and the people who write them, but Shakespeare was occasionally a show-off, and Dickens can be a little dry at times. Reading is something you’re choosing to do with your free time, so make sure you’re having fun with it!