Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What Makes a Great Book for Book Club?

Tonight is Book Club night! Hooray! I can't wait to gather with some good friends over a few glasses of wine and talk about what we read.

I posted a piece last week about the difficulties book clubs can face in choosing their next read (The Biggest Challenge for Book Clubs) . But now I want to consider what makes a particular book a fantastic read for a book club.

Here are some of the elements that I think define a great "book club book":

1. A page-turning plot: The best books for a club are the ones that kept everyone turning the pages, right? There are plenty of wonderful books that are character-driven or focused on relationships and emotions, but a book with a good plot--that everyone feels they simply CAN'T PUT DOWN--is the best way to ensure everyone finishes the book. Plot is not always the most important element for me in a novel, but I think you can't beat a page-turner for a book club. Some of the best plot-driven books my clubs have read include Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret.

2. Something to talk about: The books that really get clubs talking are the ones that make us think. The best kind of books to generate discussion often have complex characters faced with a difficult choice or situation, a central moral dilemma, that can help the group consider "what would YOU do?" A book that is too light and fluffy will not give a club much to ponder... and lead you to chatting about daily life. Believe me, I love to catch up with my friends and I will chat up a storm if no one stops me, but first I want to have a good, meaty discussion on that month's book. A good example of a book that can prompt discussion is Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife.

3. Something surprising: Some of the best book club discussions occur when everyone has read something that really surprised them. Prime example--the ridiculous, atrociously-written, really kind of earth-shatteringly bad Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. When one of my clubs selected it, I didn't want to read it, and I wondered what we could possibly discuss at the meeting ... but you know what, we could barely contain ourselves! I won't say we had the most literary of meetings that night, but we did have plenty of fun ... and sometimes, I think that's just what a book club needs. So throw in a surprise now and then, just for the heck of it. The choice doesn't have to be poorly written erotic fiction, of course, but an unusual pick--like a thriller or a humor book if your club usually reads serious literary fiction--can mix things up and rejuvenate everyone's interest in the club.

4. A reasonable page length: This sounds like a pretty goofy element to include here, but let's face it--life is busy! The members of your book club all love to read, but not everyone has time to read a 900-page tome every month. Interestingly, one of the most successful discussions my book club has ever had was after reading Stephen King's lengthy 11/22/63, but that novel is such a page-turner that we all devoured it greedily. I believe we also gave ourselves 5 or 6 weeks to read that one. In general, however, most book club selections are better if they are under 400 pages.

My book club is gathering tonight to discuss Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. I loved the book, but I am hearing that everyone else's reactions may be mixed at best. Regardless, I am looking forward to our discussion, because to me, there is nothing better than book talk with good friends! Oh, and, of course, red wine.


  1. Love this list and very much agree! I would also add that one of the best books (though honestly not a favorite of mine) that would fall into "something to talk about" is Herman Koch's "The Dinner" -- excellent ethical conversation with the book club ladies!
    It's funny - we have a nice criteria list like the one you created above but I find that more often than not, we're turning to a social media site such as to check out the ratings and read the reviews -- that too seems to weigh into our decision, perhaps almost too much ;o)

  2. You know, the Koch book is a great example . . . I don't think anyone loved the book, but it was a terrific conversation-starter! It's interesting that what makes a book "enjoyable" to us as readers might be completely different from what makes a book good for discussion.

  3. And I agree that maybe we rely too much on Goodreads! There are plenty of other places to find reviews of new books--there are lots of great blogs out there, I am learning! Do you ever feel like the Goodreads ratings don't necessarily provide a very accurate assessment of a book? In any case, maybe we need to focus more on whether a book fits our particular club and our particular interests.