Rules for a Book Club

Maybe you associate book clubs with middle-aged moms in suburbia, but I’ve been in a few with a much more diverse crowd. Some friends are starting a new one and they sent me their rules, which I think are worth sharing:

book_club

A few that I want to highlight:

1. Only read books that are new to everyone

Otherwise, everyone will suggest their favorite books, which makes for an awkward discussion if others don’t like them. Yes, I know your favorite book isn’t like this, and of course everyone will love it, and oh my god it’s so brilliant, but … just trust me on this one, OK?

2. Have a firm length limit

This eliminates a lot of potential choices, but it still leaves plenty of good ones. And it dramatically increases the number of people who will actually, you know, read the book. 300 pages sounds about right to me, and I would never go higher than 400. That’s not to say there aren’t good books longer than that, but they’re not good book club choices.

This is the most important rule and the hardest one to maintain. You’ll constantly be tempted to say “well, this one is only 310 pages…” or “we can still read this 600 page book if we allow another couple weeks …” No, you can’t. This is how book clubs drift into general drinking meetups in which no one’s finished the damn thing, and you briefly compete to fake having read it before just moving on to other subjects. (Not that there’s anything wrong with just getting drunk and chatting, of course, but if that’s all you want then why add the stress of unrealistic reading assignments?)

3. Have one person pick all the books

It isn’t perfect, but a benevolent dictatorship is better than voting or taking turns, which tend to breed resentment and stress about attendance (“I read his crappy suggestion, but he didn’t show up for mine!”). It’s also easier for one person to maintain a mix of genres, male/female writers, old/new books, or whatever other measures of variety you agree on.

Actually, an even better solution would be to agree on the first ten or fifteen titles before even starting the club — for example, everything on some all-time list (like this one) that’s under your page limit — or delegate the choices to some trusted third party. (Doesn’t have to be Oprah.)

4. Anyone can come, but only if they’ve finished the book

If you make finishing the book (recently!) a condition of attendance, then you probably won’t have to worry about overflow. You can ask people to RSVP if you have limited space in your venue, but honestly, don’t worry too much about this problem until you actually have it. Your mailing list will grow over time, but you’ll find that there’s only a small core of lasting regulars; a significant number of people either never make it at all, show up once and never again, or drop in every third or fourth month.

And that’s fine! We’re not talking about Skull & Bones here, just discussing books. Why try to make it exclusive or require a certain level of attendance?

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Notice how these rules overlap and reinforce each other. For example, a lot of the cult favorites that you might want to inflict on your book club are quite long; if they’re disallowed because of the second rule, it takes a bit of the sting out of the first.

Anyway, if you have an existing book club that’s working well, then congratulations, don’t change a thing. But if you want to start a new one, these rules seem like a good basic foundation.