Thursday, October 19, 2006

Book Club Success? 

Annula left a good question on the book club intro entry, and I thought I'd answer it here, as best as I can:

I'm a devoted reader but I've only once tried a book club, a group organized by one of my neighbors. All they ever served was chocolate chip cookies and red wine over ice cubs. No wonder the club fell apart after three or four meetings. Well, certain of their policies - they refused to meet unless all members were present and that they wanted to read only books written by people they'd actually met - were undoubtedly factors in the club's demise, too.Your post makes me want to go out and find a new book club, one with better policies and far better menus. Any suggestions?

Right off, I have to say, that menu sounds perfectly disgusting. Ever since I first read the message, I haven't been able to get that visual out of my head. Gah! Besides that, you're right--those policies are completely unreasonable.

If we only used authors we knew in Jacksonville, we'd end up reading a lot of Key Lime cookbooks and historical tales featuring the Huegenots. To be fair, John Grisham did write a couple of his books here, but the point I'm trying to get to is, sticking to authors you know generally produces a long list of mediocre books. That's really the most important thing in the book club: reading books you are excited about.

We try to be flexible with book types, as we all like different things, and keep in mind how much free time we all have after work. The person hosting picks the book, though we usually email a list of 4 or 5 potential books to the other members and take a vote. Unless we're going to have an unusually long gap, like 6-8 weeks between meetings, we stick to books under 500 pages. Also, if we read a challenging, literary-minded book the previous month, we'll read something lighter the next. If it's near the holidays, we just read something totally worthless and fun. Variety.

Member-wise, it's hard to know what kind of blend of people make up a good group. The four of us share somewhat similar careers--medical editor, medical writer, high school English teacher, and troubled teen counselor. While we have similarities in what we do, we're not on each other's territory. We don't live close to each other, and we don't work together. I think that somewhat helps the situation in that we can respect what the other person does without feeling threatened, which is sometimes an issue with women. Also, if one of us somehow ran contrary to someone else in the group, which did happen in our original group of 5, it can be resolved outside of the boundaries of the group without us having to run into each other all the time. I'm not saying that's necessary for all groups, mind you, but that's what works for us.

With scheduling, we started out saying we'd meet the last Tuesday of each month, but ended up deciding to let it float in that general vicinity. We keep each other informed about changes in our schedules (teaching on every Tuesday night, Battlestar Galactica addictions on Friday nights, etc.) and any upcoming trips. Because we're a small group, we try to meet with everyone if we can, and just put it off until it works; if it were larger than 5, we'd just meet when the majority could be there. Holding out for everyone in a large group, unless you're stuck on Craphole Island (Lost), is unrealistic.

The LOST Island book club griping about Stephen King's Carrie

As far as the discussion goes, we allow all kinds. The hostess typically looks up some discussion questions online and picks maybe three or four in case the conversation dies. We usually start with like/dislike/extreme hatred, and then go into details. We can talk about structure and symbolism if it's a major part of the book, as with Atonement. But, not all books are heavy on that. It can be about emotional manipulation on the part of the author, success of the narrative voice, and satisfaction with the method of conclusion. Or, it can be that we didn't sympathise with the protagonist, and if we knew her, we'd beat her down (also see Atonement). Whatever it is, we each comment fairly briefly on each facet as it comes around, don't interrupt, and keep the whole book discussion to about 45 minutes. Then we catch up on life and stuff our faces full of dessert.

Speaking of dessert, by settling on a food theme, it creates a challenge for us all to get excited about. Even if we hate the book, which we have, we at least know there will be good food, and we can just eat and complain about the book. As we get into reading the book during the month, we'll write the group with theme ideas. Then as the meeting approaches, the hostess sends out an email with reminder directions and phone numbers, settles on a theme, says what she can make and asks us what we'd like to bring. There is usually some thematic drink, an appetiser, salad, bread, an entree, a side, and a dessert or two. Any of those can be thematic also.

After a while you get a feeling for what you can count on from the others. M. usually brings a drink and an entree. C. usually makes a nice big salad with nuts, fruit, and field greens. B. does dessert. I fill in whatever blanks are left. We can all be creative, or if it's just been a stressful month, pull it out of a bag. I promise I did not care one cent that last month's dessert was Publix tiramisu.

The important part is, we're doing this for us. It's an escape and a get away from daily life and the droning. It's a treat and we're pampering each other, and that's the kind of atmosphere that helps it continue. It's not a drudgery, a competition, or an opportunity to judge each other, or where we force each other to sludge through snobby books.

Melissa was responsible for getting us together, as she'd kept in touch with one person from each place she'd worked over the years, and that was all of us. Putting a group together might be as simple as putting up the wish with some suggested guidelines (no iced red wine with a little barfy face next to it) on the corporate board, or asking a good friend and seeing if she knows someone she thinks would groove with the two of you, and on down the line.

Just say NO to disgusting book club food.

I haven't been in a coed study/book group since college, though every 4th or 5th meeting we invite our significant others to join for the food part. They usually find some sport on TV by the book part. The main problem coed groups will run into is territorial behavior, in my opinion, but I don't know how to prevent that, short of Tasers and/or tranquilizer darts. Just kidding, guys! Haha! If it's a passive group and nobody is willing to step up when someone gets out of line, just keep that in mind when inviting new members, male or female.

Anyway, that is a VERY long answer, but I do hope that helps!


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