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On Book Club Planning

I’ve been the organizer for a local book club for about three years now. It started out as the local branch of a national book club run by Barnes & Noble. During the part of covid where no one was meeting, I ended up running into the store manager who basically handed me the email list and told me that if I wanted to keep it going, go right ahead.
It has evolved in that time, and while it hasn’t been without bumps, I think I’ve finally hit on something good.

First, let me give a hearty recommendation to – that has been an absolute lifesaver. If you can get your group on the app, you can upload meetings, send automatic reminders, create polls, send out messages, and more. One of my favorite features is that when you add a book, it shows the cover. It sounds benign, but I can point to the picture and go “THIS ONE” when people ask what we’re reading next, and it helps make sure no one buys the wrong book, should it have the same or similar title to something else. I was about at my wit’s end with sending out emails, and this has made me so, so happy.

But there’s also the meat and potatoes of a book club – the books. When we were affiliated with B&N, they chose the book, we read it, and that was the end of it. But somewhere along the line, whomever was picking the books chose a string of depressing books, both in terms of content and quality. When it became clear that our local B&N didn’t actually want their book club back, we decided to keep our group and pick our own material.

Except, it’s not that easy. First, I tried to institute a very democratic process – everyone nominate a book and we’ll vote on it. The top three become the books for that quarter. However, not everyone wanted to nominate a book, and some people wanted to nominate eighty-two books. (Exaggeration) I tried keeping the suggestions down to one or two per person, per quarter. The long story short on this is that I ended up being bombarded with suggestions no matter what, because people just get excited about books, and I don’t blame them. But I can’t throw a book on the schedule each time it’s suggested – we’d have a year’s worth of books in two months. There’s also the nuances of not wanting someone to run away with the majority of the picks just because they happen to suggest more books, and not wanting someone to feel guilty when their pick ends up being poorly received for whatever reason.

I think I had two choices – institute a system where every person has to pick one book, and we each take a turn through however many months it takes – or take away group choice altogether. Since not everyone wants to pick a book and it still leaves the flaw of being blamed when a book flops, I chose the latter.

Now, I also don’t want to make the book club cater to my tastes. Not if I want to keep said book club and not have them all quit the band and re-form without me. So I’ve started taking it upon myself to look at upcoming releases, check out the early reviews, weigh them against what the club typically enjoys. In some ways, it’s taking it back to the original roots, only instead of a corporate overlord choosing, it’s me. There is something to be said for getting a book shortly after it’s release, being on that first wave of excitement. I also have a little more wiggle room – I know this group isn’t going to want to read something dense and weighty around the holidays, so it’s the perfect time to select a lighthearted author they love and grab their latest, even if it’s at the expense of a “new release”. When looking at books, I also try to look for things that might be a little outside the box, whether it be a perspective we don’t normally read, a different topic, or a new author. I also try to keep world war II books to a minimum, which is harder than you might expect, because WWII historical fiction is everywhere.

Now, finding a place to meet is another story entirely. In this town, it’s a pain in the butt that I wish on nobody. But I thought the process of finding a thoughtful rhythm as a book club was kind of interesting. It’s not something I expected to take on, but once I gave up trying to let everyone have input, oddly, it became much more enjoyable. Thus far, no one in the book club has complained either, so again, huzzah.