Book Groups

Alternatives to the Traditional Book Club

Memoirs

If the popularity of book clubs demonstrates one thing, it’s that readers are not cowering wallflowers hiding from the big bad world in their books.

Don’t get me wrong. I have my cowering wallflower moments, but loving books has little to do with it. On vacation recently, it was discovering a shared love of reading that pulled me out of my shell. “How is it?” the woman occupying the beach chair adjacent to mine asked, bobbing her head towards the book at my feet.

Aaaand, we’re off. We talked about e-readers versus paper books, what kind of stories we most enjoy, and what we generally love about reading. We also agreed that the ultimate vacation would involve reading all day, with no interruptions.

Our exchange raised a question I’m forever thinking about: how I can love books and reading as much as I do and still have quit at least seven book clubs over the past 10 years? Oh, it’s probably not that hard to figure out, really. Sometimes, it’s because we have different expectations for what we want out of the group. Sometimes, we end up talking at cross-purposes because we have different expectations for what we want out of literature. And sometimes, the problem is the “everyone reads one book” tradition.

No doubt I’ll be thinking about the first and second on this list in due time. But for today, I’m thinking about the third issue and three alternatives to the traditional book club.

Reading aloud

These days, reading aloud gets short shrift as a group activity, but back in the day (meaning before any of us were born), reading aloud was a common pastime. If you’re a parent, there’s a good chance you have read aloud to your child, yet somehow, when the kids graduate from picture books, the reading aloud together tends to fall away.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, just as reading aloud need not be exclusive to picture books. When I teach writing, I begin almost every class with a five to 10-minute read aloud of an inspiring text around which we built our writing activities. We proceed in a circle, each reading one paragraph. In the beginning, it can feel awkward because we aren’t used to reading aloud, but hearing artfully arranged words read aloud is a great way to develop an ear and appreciation for language.

When a book group discussion stalls, reading aloud can be a great way to keep the conversation centered on the book. Each participant reads a favorite passage aloud and shares what they appreciated about that particular collection of words. It works well as a starter activity too!

Reading together

With all the responsibilities tugging at you, it can be hard to set aside time to read. What I’ve heard from some folks who join book clubs is that they like being part of a group because it means they’ll have to make time to read. In other words, the appeal of the book club isn’t necessarily the talking about books but the fact of reading itself.

I dream of being part of a book club in which reading together is the point! We don’t have to agree on a single book or have it read by a particular date. Instead, we could get together at a coffee shop or a friend’s home and read together in companionable silence.

And who knows? Maybe the group would decide to move on to other activities around books.

Thematizing

In fact, the group might even move on to this one! I tend to think of thematizing as one of the more organic ways to organize a book club in that it mirrors the way book lovers often talk about books.

Let’s say I tell you about this great book I read. Perhaps, for the sake of example, it was Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman. “It’s a memoir by a graduate student writing about the Russian books she’s studying and her related travels,” I tell you. You get excited because you recently read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and this gives you an opportunity to share your experience of reading it. A third person recently read Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, which is about an academic, which is also what Batuman is, so there’s a connection. Then, another friend who loves romance novels pipes up that she read How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life by Mameve Medwed, about the daughter of a Harvard professor as she tries to build a life for herself outside the boundaries of her father’s scholarly world.

The beauty of this approach is that it allows readers of different preferences to read and share what they enjoy while also (ideally!) expanding their reading lists. A group can focus a book club meeting around the novels of a single prolific author (like Haruki Murakami, Alexander McCall Smith, or John Le Carre), around a genre (spy novels, romances, time travel, historical fiction, or even Jane Austen fan fiction), or around a larger idea.

The latter is especially effective if the group of readers favor different genres. So readers interested in exploring or thinking about “time” could select memoirs, fiction, or theoretical texts all of which meditate on time in some way. That sounds like a discussion I’d hang around for!

What are your favorite non-traditional book club ideas?