What makes a book club successful? Last week’s book discussion at Barnes and Noble was devoted to this thorny question, and the issues raised seemed universal enough to compel me to share some thoughts on the subject.
A few years back, I recommended Meghan Daum’s memoir “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House” to my book club. Of the five people at the meeting, only one other member read it. The other three said they hated it so much that they abandoned it between one and three chapters into reading it.
I didn’t take their response personally—we all have our preferences, and that's okay—but their level of hatred did surprise me since I found the book, at the very least, engagingly written. Daum uses the houses she has lived in as a metaphor for identity, and I found the concept well executed and thought provoking. The one other attendee who read it and I huddled over our entrees to discuss it while the other members engaged in their own non-book related conversations.
The woman who had read and disliked the memoir explained that she was turned off by what she interpreted as the author’s self-indulgence. I hadn’t noticed this because I was caught up in what interested me in the book’s writing and form. But her observation led to an interesting conversation about what makes some memoirs seem self-indulgent while others don’t. I explained what I appreciated about the book’s execution, which she hadn’t focused on because she’d been so distracted by what she didn’t like.
At the end of the night, one of the attendees who had given up on the book pulled me aside and said, “I want to apologize to you for not reading the book. I was listening to the two of you discussing it, and I regret that I wasn’t able to participate in the conversation.”
If course no apology was necessary, but in taking the time to do so, she helped me articulate perhaps one of the most important lessons about book clubs that I’ve since had an opportunity to put into practice myself. And it’s a two-parter.
First, if you make a commitment to read a book together, either stick with it, even when it gets hard, or decide as a group to change it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Second, focus on articulating your experience of the book before deciding (and sharing) whether you liked it or not. “I loved it” and “I hated it” are totalizing reactions to a book. Usually (but admittedly not always), our responses to a book are more nuanced than that.
Maybe you loved the quality of the writing but found the content creepy and disturbing (me and “Lolita”). Maybe you enjoyed the book right until the ending ruined it (me and “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”) or vice versa (me and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”). Maybe you didn’t much care for the book’s philosophical position but found it thought provoking and brilliantly executed (me and “The Lifeboat”).
My point is, the interesting conversations happen in between those extreme lines of love/like and hate/dislike.
To take it a step further, be okay with negative criticism, even if you picked the book. When you love a book or when you roped seven other people into reading a book, it can be hard to hear that or what other people didn’t like about it. Don’t take it personally—not everyone has to like what you like! Chances are, if you open yourself up to hearing different opinions, you’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of why the book resonated with you and a deeper understanding of the book itself.
What’s your best book club tip?