Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Biggest Challenge for Book Clubs

Book clubs can be wonderful things... In the frenzy of modern life, a book club meeting creates a designated time and place for friends to gather and chat, to share food and wine, and, hopefully to talk, at least a little bit, about a great book. I love book clubs, both in theory and in practice, and I feel lucky to participate in two local clubs in my small town. 

But book clubs are not without their challenges. And one of the biggest challenges a club faces is the selection of what book to read next. 

How hard can it possibly be for a group of friends who enjoy reading to pick a book to read each month? Sounds like it should be a piece of cake, doesn't it? But I have found that this process can be time-consuming, frustrating, and even lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Why is selecting a book so fraught with difficulty? 

Well, for starters, even if everyone in a book club self-identifies as a reader or book-lover, there are many different kinds of books, of course, and many kinds of readers. A group of friends say they all "love to read" and form a club... but WHAT do they all love to read? Serious literary fiction, memoirs, science fiction, chick lit, humor books, etc? Book selection can be full of friction if club members don't share the same idea of what makes a good read. Another stumbling block is finding a truly inclusive process for picking a book.  No one wants to make time to participate in a book club if they feel their voice is never heard.  Even among friends, people can feel marginalized if their suggestions are never selected by the wider group. 

Those are some of the hazards of picking the next read for a book club (and I'm quite certain my friends and fellow readers could think of a few more!). What, then, are some good methods for choosing a book? 

1. Group Consensus: I participate in one club that uses an informal group consensus process; we all bring suggested titles and discuss them as a group. Whichever book seems to generate the most buzz among the members present emerges as the winner. The process is excellent in theory, I think, because it is essentially democratic; the biggest downside is the length of time it can take. With this approach, sometimes the book selection process gobbles up more of the meeting than the discussion of that month's book! Nevertheless, the consensus process has worked well for that particular book club for over four years. 

2. Pulling Titles from a "Hat": My second book club has used this method recently. Every member has the opportunity to add a title to a hat, and once a month, a new title is pulled randomly. The merits of this approach are the relative speed compared to group consensus, and the fact that each member has an equal chance of having their selection chosen. A disadvantage can be that the book titles in the hat may not have wide appeal; the only person guaranteed to be interested in the book is the member who dropped the title into the hat. My club suggests that members only include books that they have read and loved in the hat, which helps avoid that issue. One thing we have noticed with this approach is that titles in the hat can start to seem "stale" after some months; perhaps the hat method works best if the hat is "refreshed" on a regular basis. 

3. Taking Turns: Other clubs follow a rotating selection process in which each member takes a turn at choosing the book. This method seems to have a lot of merit in term of fairness, although it puts some pressure on each member to select a book that will appeal to the wider group. One of my book clubs considered switching to this method a few years ago; we picked a member who was not present to select the first book. I suppose the rest of us thought this was an honor we were bestowing upon our absent friend; in fact, the member drafted into "book choice duty" was rather horrified when we told her about it, and protested that she didn't want the responsibility! We dropped the idea after realizing that not everyone relished the idea of choosing a book for the group. 

4. Voting:  Another option is a formalized voting process (ah, democracy!). The club selects a few titles as options, and all members participate in a vote, either at a meeting or later online. This would probably work well for a book club that has no problem generating options, but struggles with the long discussion process needed for group consensus, or would simply rather spend the time socializing or talking about the current month's book. 

5. Changing Kinds of Books: I mentioned earlier that book clubs can face the challenge of members who prefer very different kinds of books. A book selection method to try to resolve this, and in fact make good use of the range of club members' interests, might be a rotating schedule of genres or sub-genres. For example, a club could switch between literary fiction and lighter or chick lit style books, or try to select one thriller, one historical fiction novel, one memoir, one humor book, etc, per year. I've heard many people say that one of the main reasons they participate in a book club is to read books they would not ordinarily select for themselves; this method might be a way to truly put this into practice. Of course, even if a club choses a sort of "schedule" for what genres of books to read, the club will still need to select individual titles. Still, it is probably easier to pick out of a smaller field--if the club knows that it should find a humor book for July and a thriller for August, for example, it is likely not difficult to build a group consensus on which books within those sub-genres would be good choices. 

No doubt there is no perfect book selection process, and different approaches will work for different clubs, maybe even at different times in a given book club's life. Book clubs may wish to consider varying the process--mixing it up may add an element of interest and keep participation rates high. How does your book club select the next book to read? What works and what doesn't about the process?

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