When's the last time you read a really great book? How about a totally awful book? Or a book that made you mad or made you cry (or both)? What was one of the first things you did after reading it? 

I'm guessing you told somebody about it. Why? Because we humans are sociable creatures and we like to share. That applies to books as much as anything: If I love Mr. Darcy, I want my friends to swoon over him, too. If I guessed the killer early on, I want to know if I'm a virtual Sherlock Holmes or just a regular Watson like everybody else.

Hence the formation of the book club, which by definition is people getting together to talk about books. Summer, by the way, is the perfect time to try out a book club. For one thing, people seem to read more in the summer. I'm not sure whether that's because it's an activity one can do while sunbathing or because it's too darn hot to go outside. Regardless, you can find a local book club to join—many libraries and book stores have clubs—or you can start your own.

No, really, you can. It's not that hard. And summer is the perfect time to dip your toes into the book club waters. You only need to commit to a couple-three books to get you through to fall, then you can decide if you want to continue. It's not rocket science (or even library science). Just ask yourself a few basic questions.

Who?

Unless you have multiple personalities, you're going to need other people in your group. Think carefully about this one, because you want to avoid inviter's remorse. If, for example, one member is highly opinionated and refuses to entertain another point of view, that's going to make for awkward discussions. On the other hand, if all your members are milquetoasts who wouldn't offer a comment to save their lives, you're not going to have discussions at all. Look for people who are capable of carrying on basic conversation and you'll probably be fine.

One other thing: make sure your group members want to be there. If your best friend hates to read, it's better not to guilt him/her into joining. They won't enjoy it and neither will you. It's supposed to be fun. That's why you're doing it, right?

How Many?

Book club memberships range from huge to tiny, but most agree that about four to eight people is a comfortable size. There's no magic number; it all depends on the personalities of your members and the group itself. The number may ebb and flow as you go on, but that's OK. It's just a book club, not a matter of eternal destination.

To Read or Not to Read?

While that may seem like an odd question, apparently some book clubs don't actually expect their members to read any books. Instead they have a speaker (a group member or a local reviewer) give a presentation about a book at the meeting. Presumably if the presentation is compelling enough the group members go out and read the book later. This style of club lends itself to larger groups, since the members don't have to prepare or discuss. The more common type of club assumes each member will read the book selection and be ready to talk about it. (Or, as is sometimes the case, not read the book but still be ready to talk about it.)


When?

Totally up to you, but you'll want to allow enough time to actually read the book, assuming you're that kind of club. You can decide this in advance of issuing invitations ("We're going to meet the first Tuesday of every month from seven to nine" and so on) or take a vote at the first meeting or choose the time and place for the next meeting before leaving the current one (a "Next time we'll meet on this day at this place" kind of thing).

Where?

Some groups like to meet in homes, either one belonging to a hospitable soul who doesn't mind cleaning or (more commonly) rotating among the members. Others meet at restaurants, either the same one every time or one where the food or atmosphere relates to that meeting's book. Meeting rooms at libraries or bookstores may also be an option.

What to Read

As with everything else, it's up to you and your group. You might choose a specific genre (all mystery all the time, just fiction, nothing but biographies, or—as in the recent movie, The Jane Austen Book Club—the complete works of one author). Often members take turns picking books. If you go that route, keep an open mind about others' selections. You may find that book you were dreading turns out to be your favorite of the bunch!

Food?

Food is not strictly necessary for a book club, but I have found having a few munchies and something to sip generally makes any meeting more pleasant. If you're meeting in a library, they may frown on refreshments, though it is possible to sneak baggies of homemade cookies past even the most vigilant librarian. Don't ask me how I know.

On the other hand, if your group members are foodies you might enjoy planning entire meals around the book under discussion. This could mean food provided by that evening's host, a potluck, or an outing to a suitable restaurant.

Who Talks?

If you're a discussion-based group, hopefully everyone will contribute. Having a leader can help keep the group from wandering too far off topic. You can either choose a leader or take turns. This is a lot easier than it sounds, thanks to the discussion guides available for almost every book in print. If there are no questions in the back of the book—and these days, there almost always are—odds are good you'll find questions about your book online. As far as the actual discussion, just remember what you learned in kindergarten: be nice and take turns.

What's in It for You?

Camaraderie, new books, an expanded outlook on life, maybe even a new group of friends. Try it for the summer and before you know it your group may be planning a Christmas party. One group I know does an ornament exchange where each person picks an ornament that represents their favorite book of the last year. How fun is that?

If you try it and discover that book clubs are not your thing, so be it. What's the worst case scenario: You read a couple of books and spend a few hours talking about them? Pshaw. Go for it. And if you find a really great book, let me know! I'm always looking for another good read.

Happy reading!



Susan Ellingburg is a natural-born Texan who sings at every opportunity, reads as much as possible, and cherishes every day she gets to spend with friends.  She's a serious foodie and not-so-serious gardener who is determined not to let being single stand in the way of living an amazing life.  Read Susan's blog at TastingGod.wordpress.com.

**This column first published on July 8, 2010.

 

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