Sunday Salon: What’s the Point of Book Clubs?

 I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my Sunday Salon post that most of the books I’d read for my book club weren’t worth keeping, and Steph picked up on that statement and said that it was the same for her. She wondered why she continues participating in a book club when the books fail to wow her. I had been wondering the same thing for a while. Regular readers of this blog with particularly good memories will recall that some of my least favorite books from the past year were for book club. (But so were a couple of my favorites. And most of the other books were fine, not great, but still quite good.)

The question became even more significant last week when a series of conflicts, misunderstandings, and personality differences led my group to fold. When the conflict was over and the group was no more, I found that I was relieved that the group was no longer going to meet. I will continue to be good friends with some of the women from the group, but we have no definite plans to start a new group. 

So now I’m no longer in a book club, and I’m wondering why I would ever want to join or start another one. When asked in the past about the value of a book club, I had certain answers that I always gave, but not all of those answers are as pertinent now as they used to be. Here’s the gist of what I’ve thought in the past and what I’m thinking now. 

  1. Book clubs motivate me to read instead of spending all my time on other things. Well, I have gone through phases of not reading so much, but blogging has done more to motivate me to read than any club ever could. And even in a slump, I could manage a book a month, usually two or three.
  2. Book clubs get me to read books I wouldn’t consider otherwise. That’s true, but it isn’t always a good thing; I’ll never get back the time I spent reading Pillars of the Earth or (shudder) Vanilla Beans and Brodo. There’s a reason I avoid certain books. And other book bloggers are pretty good at convincing me to give books a second look when I’m hesitant.
  3. Book clubs give me a chance to talk about what I’m reading. I see two issues here: Neither book club that I’ve been part of has ever spent all that much time discussing the actual book. The first group I was in fizzled out after five years partly because we stopped talking about the book, and most people stopped even attempting to read it. The second group, which lasted two years, was a bit better on that front, but the book talk still made up less than half of our time. Book blogs give me opportunities to talk about books with like-minded folks—often with more depth and passion than I ever experienced in book club. If the discussions had gone deeper, I might have found them even more stimulating than a blog comment thread, but they rarely did that.
  4. Book clubs give me a dedicated time to get together with friends. This is the single most important reason I’ve been a dedicated book club member. I’ve genuinely liked the people in my groups. If we had stopped calling them book clubs and just had monthly get togethers, I would have been happy with that. It might have been even more fun to just chat about the books we happened to be reading, movies we happened to be watching, and so on. It’s so easy to focus on our own lives and forget to make time for friends; for me, book club was a regular appointment with friends.

When my club was preparing to fold, I remembered Simon’s recent post at Savidge Reads about book clubs and looked back at it and the many comments. It’s clear that book clubs can be fraught with drama, but that they can also be a great pleasure. What have your experiences been like? What do you think makes for a good book club? Do you even find book clubs to be worthwhile? 

In other news, Jenny and I have been doing a bit of bloggy housekeeping. We’ve just added lists of all the books we’ve reviewed, alphabetized by title and author. You can find links to both lists on our Books Read page, which you can access using the link at the top of the page or the link in the sidebar on the right. (Special thanks to Eva for helping us figure out how to compile these lists quickly and efficiently.) We’ve also added an option to receive posts by e-mail, which you can see in the sidebar on the right. And we’ve started experimenting with threaded comments, just to see how we like it. Do let us know what you think!

Notes from a Reading Life (November 30—December 12)

Books Completed 

  • Winter’s End by Jean-Claude Mourlevat. Dystopian YA that was not the best dystopia ever, but not a bad thriller.
  • Ghost Hunters by Deborah Blum (audio). Fascinating, even-handed account of investigations of turn-of-the-century spiritualists.

Currently Reading 

  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I’m reading this for the Classics Circuit. It’s been slow going, not because it isn’t terrific, but because I’ve been devoting huge chunks of my reading time to preparing a final paper for my Reformation Theology class.
  • The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. I’ve reached the chapter on odes, but I’m taking a break for a few weeks until the semester is over.
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (reread). I read this in college and loved it. I’m now reading it over my lunch break at work each day, so it’s taking a while. I’m now just over half done, and it’s as good as I remembered.
  • Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (audio). Two U.S. Marshalls are investigating a woman’s escape from an institute for the criminally insane. I’m on the second disc, and it’s gripping!

On Deck 

  • The Campaigners by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. The 14th book in the Morland Dynasty series.
  • Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton. After the rigors of finals, I have a feeling I’ll be wanting something light, and I’ve heard great things about this.
  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. For the January Classics Circuit. 
New Acquisitions 
  • The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee. A British woman in 1950s Hong Kong. Before my book club folded, I went out and bought this and two other books we were planning to read. I’m at least moderately interested in reading it, so I’ll hang onto it.
  • Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. A modern sensation novel from the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Another former book club pick. I liked The Time Traveler’s Wife, and the premise of this one has more obvious appeal to me.
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Another former book club pick. I’ll confess that I’m uncertain about this one. It’s Southern fiction about race relations, and everyone adores it. Southern fiction about race is so often simplistic and irritating, and I’m not sure there’s a book that’s been written that could live up to the praise this book has received. But I’ll give it a try eventually.
  • Family Britain, 1951-1957 by David Kynaston. I got this history of Postwar Britain through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
  • Niccolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett. Because I’m trying not to add many books to my TBR pile (big fail this week), I decided to start using Bookmooch and Paperbackswap points to get books I love but don’t own. Among these are the works of Dorothy Dunnett. This is the first in her House of Niccolo series.
  • Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett. The third in Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles.

Books on My Radar 

  • The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. This has actually been on my radar for a while, but there was so much hype about it last year that I ended up tuning it out. Rebecca’s review at The Book Lady’s Blog convinced me that I might want to take a closer look.
  • Juliet Naked by Nick Hornby. Any new Hornby fiction goes on my list. Like the Unruly Reader, I find him to be reliable and enjoyable.
  • The Imposter by Damon Galgut. The South African novel got a rave review at Vulpes Libris.
  • The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Smith. A fairy tale with a gorgeous cover. Reviewed at Gaskella.
  • The Big Clock by Thomas Fearing. A classic mystery I’d never even heard of until I saw Thomas’s review at My Porch.
  • East Lynne by Ellen Wood. Yet more sensation fiction. Reviewed by Kristen at We Be Reading, who compared it to Armadale.
  • Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande. Raych at Books I Done Read says this one is part educational text, part memoir, and part medical thriller.
  • The Hidden by Tobias Hill. Apparently, a lot of people haven’t liked this book, but SFP’s review at Pages Turned makes it sound great. It’s just perhaps not the thriller that the marketing makes it out to be.
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40 Responses to Sunday Salon: What’s the Point of Book Clubs?

  1. In high school, I was overjoyed to finally join the book club after I gave up speech and debate. Since it was so large, we were given a choice of three books every month, which, I think, really contributed to its success. I also liked the discussions, especially seeing books from others’ perspectives.

    However, now that I’m a book blogger, I don’t feel as motivated to join the book club here on campus. I’ve even been a hop and a skip ahead of them with books a few times, but I still haven’t gone to a meeting.

    Still, I really enjoyed my experiences with book clubs.

  2. Frances says:

    I have had similar disappointing experiences. Starting to think that social tastes and book tastes are poor partners. How about this? Since all of us DC bloggers are planning to meet for dinner next month, why don’t we talk about doing a book club like Simon and our London friends great experience. Seems to make more sense as we have all come together over books and have similar literary sensibilities. Something to think over? Capital Readers?

    Juliet Naked is also on my upcoming list. Like you, anything by Hornby, is a must-read for me. Happy reading!

    • Teresa says:

      You know, Frances, when you mentioned getting together on your post last week (just after my group folded!), the same thought crossed my mind! There are definitely plenty of us in the area who have similar tastes. I’m not sure if I can squeeze another regular gathering into my schedule since I do want to continue getting together regularly with the friends from my old club, but it’s certainly worth talking about!

  3. I think one of my favorite things about blogging is that is functions as an ideal book club (except for the lack of snacks and wine). You can find people who have read and/or want to read the same books, and you can discuss them. You can follow people whose taste intrigues you and discover new books that push you in different directions. And if you live in a place where there are area tweet-ups, you can have meetings with those people too!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, Jill, I agree that blogging is so much like a book club, and it’s wonderful when it expands into real-life connections, as it has for so many of us. I know I’ve enjoyed meeting bloggers like you, and I look forward to meeting more, like Frances.

  4. Robyn says:

    The Gargoyle is a lovely book, I enjoyed it immensely and have to admit to not having heard all the hype about it… instead finding it a year after being published at the library. Def give it a go:-)

    • Teresa says:

      Robyn, right about the time I first started blogging, The Gargolye seemed to be everywhere, and I did get sick of hearing about it. (It didn’t help that I was just getting a sense of which bloggers had taste that matched mine.) But I’ve added it to my list and plan to give it a go one of these days.

  5. I just started going to a book club here in Madison, made up of some girls that work at the newspaper I interned with. It’s pretty informal, in that we pick books and then meet sometime in the future when we’re all read it. I’ve liked the books we’ve read so far, but I think what works about it is that we’re small (only four or five people), so we can usually get consensus on a book. Plus, we’re all about the same age and have similar interests. I’ve never been in a bigger book club, so I’m not sure how it actually works.

    I agree with rhaposdyinbooks though — blogging is a lot like a book club in some ways, although I do miss snacks :)

    • Teresa says:

      My old clubs both hovered at around 6 people, so it was pretty easy to get a consensus. We were also pretty open to reading anything. I do think a small group is nice for getting everyone involved. I’m not sure I’d enjoy a really large club.

      But with such a small group, personality differences or laxity in reading the book could turn into a serious problem, and unfortunately it did for us. I hope your group finds the right formula.

  6. Aarti says:

    I’ve never wanted to participate in a book club because I don’t like being forced to read certain books by a certain time- for some reason, that then perversely makes me NOT want to read the book.

    I did just start a long-distance classics discussion group with my friend in St. Paul, MN. We are going to read classics together at a leisurely pace and discuss them together via email. Hopefully that works well!

    • Teresa says:

      Aarti, Reading to a deadline has never bothered me. I guess I just got used to it as an English major :-) I feel like the Classics Circuit is sort of a long-distance book club for Jenny and me, since we’ve been deciding together on what to read and collaborating on our reviews. That has been great fun for us, and I hope it’s just as much fun for you and your friend!

  7. claire says:

    I haven’t yet joined an actual book club for the reasons that I haven’t found one whose members share my reading tastes. I think it’s easier to form book clubs online, as it is easier to connect in terms of reading tastes.

    • Teresa says:

      Claire, I’ve been so impressed with how many bloggers I’ve found who like the same books I do. You’re right that it’s not always easy to find that in the offline world. I was lucky that one of the women in my club liked almost all the books I liked; my favorites book club reads–White Teeth and Love in the Time of Cholera–were both her suggestions.

  8. Amanda says:

    Well, you read my post today about book clubs. I love mine. I love it because I designed it to be the way I wanted it. I think a lot of book clubs lack focus. We have an “adult book club” at my library as well that I’ve gone to a few times when they’re reading books I like, but if that was my monthly book group, I’d want to quit. I’d hate to read most of their selections and frankly I just wouldn’t do it. I also tried going to a book group at another library once only to find out that I was one of only 2 people who had read the book. They just had social hour for that time, and I was really irritated.

    In order for a book club to be successful, you have to have a focus, a moderator who will lead the discussion well, and input from all the club members. Though I lead every month of my group, I allow the members to send me suggestions for the next year’s book list every September. I put together their selections, pick the ones that I think will work best for our group (based on length, number of copies in the library, etc), and bring the list to discuss with everyone. Sometimes we change something during that discussion, sometimes they leave as is. I contribute a book or maybe two to the year’s list, but mostly, they choose. Then I do the work to research the book, plan out things to discuss, and we take off. It’s fallen into a wonderful pattern and there are rarely months when we have less than 45 mins of discussion. Most months I have to cut us off before it’s time for the next group to meet.

    I can see why book clubs don’t work for some people, but I really like mine. I don’t always like every book we read – I’ve read some real rotten classics over the last three years – but I can take those books and dig up why they are important, and it’s great to hear everyone else’s interpretations of them.

    • Teresa says:

      Amanda, I can definitely see the value of a moderator for a group of, say, 10 or more. The groups I’ve been were just so small that there didn’t seem to be a need, although, looking back, it might have been good to have someone whose job it was to at least keep the discussion book focused for a set length of time–maybe to plan things to discuss and steer the conversation.

  9. Vasilly says:

    I think with book clubs it’s hit or miss. I joined a great one earlier this year, only for it to fizz out. Nowadays the only book discussion I participate in is with blogging and Twitter.

  10. Jenny says:

    I have a friend who’s in a book club where each person reads a different book from the “Book Club Pool” (provided by other members, sort of “you’ve GOT to read this one!”) and comes to discuss what he or she read that month, returning the book to the pool and/ or adding another. It sounded like there was no shortage of discussion and as if it was an unusual format that had taken off. Not so regimented as the usual.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, Something like that does sound like fun. You can choose what to read or not, and you’d probably get a really good sense of each other’s taste. I’ve thought that just getting together with friends to chat about what we happen to be reading would be fun–and we both know that such conversation can go on for ages :) But that system adds a little more structure and ensures that everyone would have something to bring to the table. How large was the pool?

  11. litlove says:

    I’ve only ever attended one book club meeting and it was okay, but I’ve never felt compelled to go back. I spent twelve years teaching literature to undergraduates, so I sort of need quite a reasonable level of book chat to be content (which sounds terrible, but there it is) and I can’t honestly say I got it there, and blogging is such a wonderful book club – or literary salon as I’d rather think of it – that reality paled in comparison. I’m not sure that sounds any better! So there it is, very dodgy reasons for not appreciating book clubs all that much, but effective ones for me.

  12. beastmomma says:

    I find that book clubs are are good way to meet people when you are new to an area. Since graduating college, I have lived in five cities and started book clubs in four of them and joined one that already existed. I love to read and having a book group gave me the chance to connect with people and get to know them in a way that can sometimes be hard in other social settings. I only had one book club flop, but that was when I was in Seattle and too consumed with law school to focus on giving it the attention needed to flourish. I just moved to MA and joined a book club at the library which has been a good way to meet my neighbors. I also started one which has helped me get over my shyness and talk with people. If I were already established somewhere, I think it would hard to commit to a book club that was reading books that were not of interest or having to deal with strong personalities. So far, I have been really lucky in that book clubs have helped to establish my social circle.

    • Teresa says:

      Beastmomma, I know exactly what you mean. The women in my book clubs really became my social circle (which makes it all the harder when one splits up). And being kind of shy, I like having some sort of built-in topic to chat about when getting to know people.

  13. Steph says:

    I think you hit on the reason why real-life bookclubs can be so rewarding, even if they are also underwhelming: the sense of comradeship that stems from sharing books with other people. Even though the level of investment and even the level of discourse from others in my bookclub continually disappoints me, I can’t help but look forward to meeting up with other people each month to talk about books! I think the key for me is that I need to find a group of people who are as enamored by reading as I am – it might be tough, but I think that if I could find that, I would be less bothered by the occasional bad book!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, The bad books are not nearly as frustrating as a lack of engagement with them. And I think the lack of engagement leads to more bad books because we don’t *really* get to know each other’s tastes and don’t choose books likely to suit everyone.

  14. Kathleen says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said about book clubs. I’m in one that I started in 2002 and for the most part it has not met my expectations. I think the blogging community as definitely inspired me to read more, read new types of books, and has allowed me to have a platform to discuss what I read. I still hold out hope that my book club will change or improve but it is not very likely that it will happen!

  15. Great post! I think it is all down to finding the right book group. I am lucky in that the only one I’ve ever joined (Simons) is really good. We are mainly book bloggers and we actually want to talk about the books. It is nice to meet and talk to people in the flesh, as although blogging is fantastic you never really get the depth that an hour of straight conversation gives.

    • Teresa says:

      Jackie, I’ve been so envious of your Riverside Readers! You seem to always read interesting books. And you’re right than a hour of face-to-face conversation provides much greater depth than you’re likely to get on a blog.

  16. Dorothy W. says:

    I’ve had a good experience with book groups, but I think I’ve been really lucky. The best one (in my experience of three total) is my mystery book group, and it works because everyone has lots to say about the books so that the discussions go on for hours. It also helps to have a focus like the mystery genre because we can compare books and build up an understanding of the genre as go along. I also really like the online book group The Slaves of Golconda, both because the books are usually good and always interesting, and because the discussions are fun. My other in-person group is good but it doesn’t meet often (which isn’t a bad thing I think). I guess I think it all comes down to finding the right combination of people, which isn’t easy to do.

    • Teresa says:

      Dorothy, One of these days, I’ll join in on a Slaves discussion. I’m just waiting for the right book at the right time :-) I’m not sure if I’d enjoy focusing on one genre because my reading is all over the place, but I can see how it would be useful. Maybe one avenue would be to focus on one genre for six months and then move on to a different genre and so on…

  17. JaneGS says:

    The internet is my book club–I’ve found more people to talk with, more good book recommendations, more interesting discussions, etc. than I could ever hope to find in my real circle of friends/acquaintance.

  18. rebeccareid says:

    I was/am a part of a book club that reads books I’m consistently not interested in. But I kept going for a few months simply for number 4 of the list: to be with friends one evening a week. The last couple of months, though, I’ve been sick or my son or my husband has been out of town and I didn’t want to find a sitter, and like you I have felt relieved that I didn’t need to read that book. They did discuss the books, but I was often the only one who didn’t like it.

    On the other hand, I coordinated with the library to start a classics book club. We’ve had two meetings. And those books fit items 1-3 on your list: getting me to read books I may not otherwise pick up, actually discussing a book, and reading when I might not otherwise, because I know I have a meeting (and I’m coordinating it!). I think you just need a book club with your types of books. The people you meet at the meetings become your friends!

    About threaded comments: Because I always receive follow-up comments via email, I actually dislike them. I can’t tell if “Good point!” is a response to my comments of the person above me so I have to click over to the website (and I do because I want to know what you say to MY comment in particular). Besides that, if a post gets lots of comments and you respond to each individually, I get 20 new emails instead of just one or two from you. So those are my thoughts, for what it’s worth. I know it’s a lot prettier on this end :)

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca: Yeah, I found the social aspects of book club rewarding, but I would have been fine with wine and cheese instead :) And you’re right about how fellow book club members become your friends. I only knew one person from my original book club, but I became friends with all the others.

      And thanks for the feedback on threaded comments. Jenny and I actually had that same concern, but it’s so much easier to read and reply from the site. We’re still deciding whether we want to stick with it. We are trying to name the person we’re responding to, so at least people will know without clicking over whether we’re responding to them, so hopefully that helps, even if it doesn’t cut down on the number of e-mails.

  19. gnoegnoe says:

    Hee, Pillars of Earth has come highly recommended to me but I’m hanging on to your shuddering as a good excuse not to pick it up ;)

    Right now I’m reading… (drumroll) The Gargoyle! Can’t say much yet, except that erm, the beginning is VERY graphic. I dare not read Rebecca’s review (nor FarmLaneBooks’s / Bookarama’s, who was it that reviewed Davidson as well?), because I like to know as little as possible of a book when I start reading :)

    Her Fearful Symmetry is on my shelf and I plan to read it as part of next year’s What’s in a name challenge :) Let’s see who finishes it first! ;)

    • Teresa says:

      gnoegnoe: Pillars would have been a good trashy read at about half the length. I suspect I’ll get to Her Fearful Symmetry in a month or two, only because a friend from my now defunct book club also got a copy and will probably want to compare notes.

  20. Lesley says:

    Right now, I am involved in two book clubs, one at the library where I work and one at my church – both of these I started and lead. We do discuss the books, but not really in as much depth as I’d like (most people just don’t want or can’t get into discussions about symbolism, etc. – I get blank stares or very little feedback if I make forays into those areas). Right now I wish I could find a book club where I could just read the book and show up and not have to do all the work!

    I’ve had mixed results with past book clubs I have participated in – my favorite was one I belonged to in Charlotte, which was a good mix of social and book discussion. Unfortunately we moved and so I had to leave it.

    • Teresa says:

      Lesley, I don’t think I’d enjoy organizing and leading a largish group. The nice thing about the clubs I was in that you didn’t really have to do any work unless you were hosting. That was nice. And it does seems like getting the deep discussion is a near universal problem with book clubs.

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