Book group “rules”

About 12 months ago we welcomed a new member to our little book group. At least I thought we were welcoming, but it turns out that perhaps we weren’t quite as welcoming as I had imagined. Our new member has decided to quit, citing the need to get up incredibly early to catch the 5am train, but we all know that we could have done more to make her feel like part of the group.

It wasn’t all our fault of course. Sometimes people just don’t gel with other people and that’s ok. It’s probably really hard for a new person to join our group which has been meeting for about twenty years. We have a good understanding of what kind of books each person likes to read, and we often swap books that we think another member will like, but we don’t mind branching out into something new every now and then. It’s very boring to read the same kind of books all the time. I like to think we aren’t too narrow in our choices although we mainly read fiction.

The last book we read was non-fiction and was chosen by the new person and I found it a difficult and sombre read. I was glad I had read it, but it was an awfully dark book to read in the middle of a pandemic. It didn’t help that it was a true story. A horrifying tale of man’s inhumanity to man set on Manus Island. If you aren’t familiar with what happens on Manus Island, let’s just say that it makes me ashamed to be an Australian.

I expressed these views at our meeting. Perhaps I should have kept them to myself? Was she offended that I didn’t enjoy the book she had chosen? To be honest, it’s not a book that anyone would enjoy, but it’s an important book and I think I made this clear.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I’ve come up with some ideas (I hesitate to call them rules) on running your book group.

  1. If people don’t like the book you’ve recommended, don’t take it personally and don’t apologise. We once read a book that I recommended and loved, and my friend said it was “like eating cold porridge.” I thought her comment was hilarious. Some books are just not for you and that’s okay. You are allowed to love books that other people hate. It’s nice when everyone says “I loved this book” but it’s not necessarily desirable, and it’s definitely not mandatory. Some of our best discussions have occurred when half the group loved the book and the other half hated it.
  2. Try to give some space to the quietest person in the group. They usually have something brilliant to say if everyone else shuts up and gives them a chance.
  3. Communicate with the group in between meetings and don’t leave anyone off the email list or they’ll get miffed. Try to make sure that everyone “replies all”. Private messages just confuse things and leave some people in the dark about what is happening. Feelings can be hurt.
  4. Don’t try to keep the conversation completely on the book. Tangents are ok and sometimes very interesting. We’ve had some awesome discussions about the themes of books (motherhood, grief and loss, sexuality) and if someone had insisted that we “must go back to talking about the book” then these discussions would never have happened.
  5. Be forgiving if people forget what the book is or what date the meeting is. If you’ve taken on the role of unofficial secretary, send out a reminder. People are busy and have a lot going on in their lives. (This is actually a note to self. I get annoyed when people forget when book group is, but my life is relatively uneventful. Also, I put it in my calendar!!)
  6. Try to find ways to diversify your reading. There are some fantastic books out there that aren’t on the best seller list. Try reading some translated books, some classics, and some genres you don’t usually read. Also try graphic novels, YA fiction, poetry and memoir. You might be just on the verge of a great new discovery. Here’s a great blog if you are interested in hearing from different voices.
  7. Check that the library has at least two copies of the book before you recommend it. Not everyone has the financial means to buy new books.
  8. Also, it’s worth checking out what kind of book boxes your local library can provide. They often have multiple copies of books just waiting to be borrowed by book groups.
  9. Try to have some kind of system for choosing the next book. Our group usually has a list of books we think we’d like to read in the coming year but we still spend ages trying to decide what to read next, so this year we are trying a rotation method where each person takes a turn to choose the book. I’m not sure whether this is working for everyone, but it does cut down the time trawling through possible reads and it means everyone gets a chance to choose at least one book they like.
  10. Just to reiterate point one (and because a list of 10 points is tidier than nine) please remember that what you have in common is curiosity and a love of reading and that if no-one likes the book you chose, it’s okay. After all, it’s not as if you wrote it.

Do you have any suggestions to add?

11 thoughts on “Book group “rules”

  1. Love this Marg, I’ve had multiple experiences of book clubs challenging friendships, partly because of different opinions of books chosen and others taking it personally. Sometimes its because of the way opinions are expressed! Robustly vs quietly! Ive also been in a group which rejected inviting a new member, because a few people didnt want it, and the rest of us thought the decision needed to be agreed by all.
    We alternate who chooses the book, and generally don’t do non fiction. Some only listen to audio versions because of their circumstances, which often brings forth different views of the book, subject to the narrator. The person who chooses the book starts the discussion, and can also bring some additional relevant discussion material.

    We try to move the discussion around the group, usually the person holds the book, a little like the talking stick. Deviations are common, and interesting.
    I love the richness of other’s views, and this has occasionally changed my view of the book.
    PS, my latest discovery of authors is Rachel Cusk, reading her trilogy at the moment! Love her

    1. Hello Deb, it’s lovely to hear your thoughts on book groups. We often have conversations in our group that change my views or make me think differently, and I love that. The way you read and interpret a book is often very coloured by how you are feeling about life in general, so it’s always good to get other people’s views. I remember really disliking a book by David Nichols because the lead character reminded me of someone from my past who I didn’t think much of, so I abandoned it after only reading one chapter. Probably should have given it more of a chance.
      I like the idea of the book being a talking stick, perhaps we should try that.
      I haven’t read Rachel Cusk, thanks for the recommendation. Will seek out her trilogy because you know I’m always looking for great reads!

  2. A good rule is that all conversations should take place as a group. There is nothing worse than someone having a side chat that not everyone can hear, especially as we age and don’t hear as well in crowds anymore. If it’s personal, save it for later. Having been in various book clubs over 40 odd years, I have read many genres I would avoid if left to my own choice. Must up my SF and fantasy!

    1. I forgot about SF and fantasy. I recently read an advance copy of a paranormal romance. An author that I follow on Instagram asked of anyone wanted to read and review her forthcoming book and I thought it would be a fun thing to do, and it was.
      I agree that side chats are terrible in book groups (in all groups really). I find it especially frustrating because I can’t listen to two conversations at once and I worry that I might miss something.

  3. I think the dynamics of book groups can be difficult, so these are great pointers. I envy you that you’ve had a book group for twenty years….I’m not currently in a book group but would love to be in one at some point. I think long-lasting ones are difficult to find and depend on good-intentioned and thoughtful people who have unique personalities that gel. All readers are great!

    1. My sister and I tried to start an International book Group but it didn’t take off. This was a couple of years ago and maybe the time wasn’t right. I think it would be more successful now as a few of the people have pretty good internet skills now. One of the few benefits of Covid 19 is that it has made some people a lot more technology savvy.
      I love to hear what people are reading and always look at people’s bookshelves when I am visiting someone else’s house. Unfortunately, digital books mean that you can’t really get a complete view of their reading choices.

  4. I think some of your points are equally applicable to other types of group. Particularly point 2. It’s so easy to let the “gobby” people dominate leading the quieter people to feel left out. And groups can become cliquey sometimes. A good chair will try to include everyone and bring them into the conversation.

    I’m quite a shy person myself, especially when joining in with a new group. It takes time before I feel integrated, although then I can be one of the “gobby” ones!. Because of my own experience, If I’m in a leadership position in a group I make an effort to talk to and try to involve new people to make them feel welcome. Not everyone does this, not necessarily because they want to be cliquey, but sometimes they’re either a little shy themselves, or unaware how newcommers can feel.

    1. I was just thinking the same thing myself. Most groups have people who talk a lot and are often processing their ideas out loud, while others are thinking quietly to themselves. In her book “Quiet”, Susan Cain talks about how extraversion came to be thought of as desirable. It’s a really interesting book.
      I used to be fairly shy myself, but I’m quite confident now. Not necessarily in new situations though. It’s hard to be the new person.

      1. I’m not familiar with that book – will have to look it up
        I agree that it is hard to be the new person. definitely true for me

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