Book clubs are for more than books

When was the last time your book club discussed a book? If it’s anything like mine, discussing the book takes a backseat to socializing. My book club comprises my oldest friends. It is older than my marriage. The original, core group of members were girlfriends who worked for the same company and knew everything there was to know about one another. When we convened for book club we didn’t need to spend any time catching up; we could focus on the book. And in the beginning we read serious literature like Of Human Bondage and Sons and Lovers. We were still relatively new when we decided to include our significant others, inviting them to join us for a discussion of Our Man in Havana, a book deemed light enough for them to enjoy. The men never left, and the book choices were wide and varied.

Over time we created an algorithm for who would choose the next book. The variables included who hosted last, who chose the last book, and whose house we were going to next. It ends up being rather complicated (I blame the math majors among us) and we spend a few minutes at each meeting reviewing how it works. We also created a mnemonic to help us remember whose house we would meet at next. It would work, too, if we could remember what the mnemonic meant.

We’ve read a lot of wonderful books. I’ve bought each one, filling several bookshelves. There were also some memorable disappointments. No one made it through Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, and we still laugh about how painful The Master of Ballantrae was. We used to work hard to find books that none of us had read. A few years ago we decided it might not be a bad idea if someone had read the book that was being suggested. That way we could assert some form of quality control.

If life had stayed the way it was in those early days, we’d probably still be diligently discussing books, but that’s not the way life works. The group has had marriages and children, a divorce and illnesses. The company we once worked for doesn’t exist anymore and none of us has worked with another of us for many years. We try to meet every two months, but it probably averages out to more like three or four. We use the time to catch up; a lot can happen in three months. We spend a weekend in the fall at my family’s house in Vermont. A lot of visiting gets done around the fireplace with a few bottles of wine, when no one has to drive anywhere. And there’s an annual pilgrimage to another family’s home on the beach in Gloucester. We talk about having book club in Tuscany, but haven’t yet. No one is ruling it out though. Maybe when all the kids are out of college.

When I suggest that my husband read the book for the next meeting, he scoffs that it’s not a book club; it’s a social club. But he’s wrong. There are always a few people who have actually read the book, and however anemic, there is time spent discussing it. A good book club is about more than books. It’s about the great stories we all have to tell.

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9 responses to “Book clubs are for more than books

  1. Amen. I feel the same way about my writers’ group. I refer to it as my Church. Every week, I look forward to hearing what gifts my follow group members have created, and what stories they will share with me.

  2. I think book clubs are a great idea, but great execution is a problem. In one I attended the format was rigid and off-putting; in another the leader just distributes simple-minded questions which, not surprisingly, get simple-minded, perfunctory answers, and then everybody leaves. Eating seems to be the only function. I’d love some ideas to improve the situation.

    • I wish I could give you some ideas on how to make a book club work, but I haven’t any. I do have an observation to share. The book seems to be what drives the discussion, by which I mean, we can all agree that a book was a great read and still have nothing to say about it. There are books, however, that provoke all kinds of discussion, and not necessarily because they were really “good” or really “bad.” Somewhere I have a spreadsheet we put together to track that information. I’ll dig it up for examples and report back.

  3. I miss that company (if it is the one I am thinking of)!

  4. We had fun there!

  5. Even if you don’t meet as often as you used to and don’t all read the books, I think it sounds wonderful. I’ve always envied people with old friends and rituals. Life is forever changing – a little consistency is nice.

  6. Maybe if we called it our “Old Friends Club” where we sometimes read books, we’d feel better about our accomplishments! And we WILL get to Tuscany one of these years….

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