It’s book club night and you’re heading out to join the gang for a discussion on the new Jennifer Egan novel. But if you’re wondering whether you’ll get through the first discussion question before the conversation shifts to last night’s PTA meeting or someone’s recent vacation, it may be time to rethink your approach.
If your book group could benefit from a much-needed boost, consider these suggestions for getting back into the groove.
Scenario #1: Your group keeps losing members. How can you attract new additions?
Solution: Even the most established groups can fall victim to circumstances beyond your control. From a member moving away, to another having a baby or changing jobs, there are reasons why, for some, being part of a group that meets regularly is simply no longer doable. If your group is noticeably dwindling, consider recruiting new voices by asking a fellow booklover or your neighbor who frequents the Little Free Library. “Keep in mind that different ages, genders, and reading tastes can bring new life to a book club and help keep the discussion focused on the book,” says Ann Walters, book facilitator for Between the Covers. “The book will be the common denominator rather than the fact your children all go to school together.”
Scenario #2: Your group is stuck in a reading rut; how can you cultivate alternative selections?
Solution: As tempting as it may be, your group need not be married to the bestseller list. If you keep reading the same category over and over (hello, historical fiction), the conversation will tend to drift back to a repetitious pattern of questions. Spicing things up a bit by switching genres or from fiction to nonfiction can be as simple as picking the brains of non-members. “Have a member ask an avid reader outside the group for their best recommendation,” offers Janelle Bailey, director of the Wisconsin Academic Decathlon and book club leader. “Or peruse some friends’ Goodreads challenges to see what they’ve been reading.” Another powerful resource: your local librarian, independent bookstore, or Scribd’s editor’s lists. “The people who work there love nothing more than coming up with great suggestions,” says Walters.
Scenario #3: The conversation seems to deviate from the book; how can you get the discussion back on track?
Solution: The wine has been poured, the food spread is out, and everyone has settled into a comfy seat. Before you can get past the prologue, someone brings up the latest debacle. As hard as you may try to get everyone on the same page, there’s always someone who manages to go off topic — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Many groups aren’t looking for a serious literary discussion, but would like to use the book as a jumping off point for a discussion,” notes Walters. Consider calling in a professional book facilitator, if you can swing it, who will subtly nudge the conversation back to the book and ensure that everyone has a say. If that’s not a possibility, set a standing rule — say, an agreement to discuss what was read for 30-45 minutes before moving on.
Scenario #4: The same members dominate the discussion; how can you encourage others to speak up?
Solution: Like any community-based setting, book groups should be regarded as a safe space, one where people feel at ease when sharing their thoughts. In Bailey’s club, co-facilitators take the lead to ensure that conversation is continuously flowing and not dominated by any one member. “They manage the room pretty well, making sure that everyone present has the opportunity to share and participate,” she says.
To ensure that everyone is receptive to hearing from others, it helps to engage the entire group from the get-go. Walters recommends an icebreaker question and then going around the room to listen to individual answers. “Sometimes, I have members share a favorite quote or meaningful scene; sometimes I have them each read a quote that I’ve chosen and ask them for their reaction,” she says. It’s an effective way for members to bring their opinions to the table and lends for a more personal, heartfelt discussion.