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What is a Book Group?

  • A Little History of a Big Idea

    Variations on a Theme

  • Groups with Professional Leaders
  • Groups Sponsored by a Library or a Bookstore
  • Plain and Simple Living Room Groups

    How to Join a Group

  • Joining an Established Group
  • A Group of One's Own
  • Basic Rules to Get Started
  • Watch for These Common Pitfalls

    Resources

  • Organizations
  • Publications
  • Doubleday's Reader's Companions


    What Is a Book Group?

    (Back to Table of Contents)

    You may have heard and read a lot lately about book groups and how they're thriving, even multiplying -- exponentially. They've proliferated so, it seems you should be able to find the term "book group" in Webster's.

    If you could, the definition would probably note that most groups are a gathering of people who meet once every month or so for one or more of the following reasons: the possibility of meeting kindred spirits; an escape from the negative parts of the daily reality they face, be that overwhelming work demands, cranky toddlers, or boredom; and tuition-free intellectual stimulation.


    A Little History of a Big Idea

    Webster's might also mention that reading groups began in early nineteenth century Massachusetts, became a force to reckon with as Lewis Miller and Bishop John Heyl Vincent envisioned the "Chautauqua Idea" and founded the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circles (CLSC) in 1878, flourished on college campuses in the early twentieth century when women, discouraged or at times forbidden from entering the academic circles their spouses swam in, gathered to pursue an independent education, and were strengthened during the war years when women gathered at their "ladies arts clubs" to roll bandages while listening to another member read and present a book.

    But once committed this far, Webster's would have to go on and define book groups today -- meeting informally in living rooms across the country, or a little more formally in a cramped space in the neighborhood bookstore or a conference room at the local library. Would it also mention that some groups make a business of it -- paying a leader who insures that everybody present will dig with her for the truth of the book? It probably would.

    Recently, Webster's might even note, the Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders (ABGRL) was founded in part to put a number on the sturdy web of groups that span the country. Just how many of these things are there? ABGRL founder, Rachel Jacobsohn, estimates there may be as many as 250,000 book groups in the United States alone, and adds that this is probably a conservative number.

    But, of course, that's way too much for Webster's, which after all has to define a few other words too. If forced, the editors might cut the definition down to something like this. Book Group: two or more people gathered to discuss a book they've read, hoping that, collectively, they'll discover things about it they may have missed on their own.

    Because refreshments, friendships, escapes, and history aside, the book is the reason the group is together -- it always has been.

    Variations on a Theme

    (Back to Table of Contents)

    That said, book groups come in many shapes and sizes. From groups that are sponsored by professional organizations complete with fees and applications, to friends who e-mail each other about they books they read and love, if you want to talk about books, you'll find it easy to fashion or join a group that fits your specific needs.

    Most groups end up being some form of the three main types listed here:

    1. Leadered Groups -- these have a paid professional at the helm and a roster of members who have agreed to follow him or her.

    2. Library or Bookstore Groups -- these may be run by a leader, but typically are free of charge and open to anyone who happens by.

    3. Living Room Groups -- these smaller groups of six to twelve usually require more of a commitment, meeting in members' homes on fairly regular basis.

    Each type of book group has strengths, as you'll find in the more detailed descriptions that follow. Your goal is to choose the style that's best for you.


    1. Groups with Professional Leaders

    Some of us crave structure. And by the straightforward act of paying someone, our book groups can have a singular design.

    Sounds like a great job

    It is a great job, but a tough one, too. A professional book group leader performs many tasks, not the least of which is insuring that a group runs with some precision -- meeting once a month on a specific date, instead of whenever everybody can make it, starting and ending at prescribed time, centering the discussion on the book and issues related directly to it, and clearing room for all points of view, not just those that erupt from loud and frequent speakers.

    Typically a leader will prepare a reading list in advance, though most are open to suggestions from the groups they lead. This list will have a rhyme and reason -- the leader choosing titles that complement and amplify each other in some cases, contradict in others. Professional leaders come to their groups armed with background information about the book and the author, with probing questions about the content and subtext, and with great joy and enthusiasm for their job. Think about it -- they're getting paid to read and talk about books -- who wouldn't be happy?

    What's it going to cost?

    After she's led your group in discussion for two hours or so, you'll no doubt agree your leader is worth every penny you pay her. If you don't, then a leadered group, or perhaps just that particular leader, may not be the best choice for you.

    Remember, the leader works for your group -- it's her job to fit her style to your needs. You may want a more or less formal structure. If after a meeting or two, you're not certain about her approach, or if you're certain you'd like her to make some changes, talk to her about it. Any professional will appreciate the review and will adjust accordingly or explain why she's unable to do so. Listen to her suggestions also. You have a common goal: a well-run, stimulating, shared discussion. Give the leader a chance, but if, after another meeting or two, it's still not working, grit your teeth, pretend you're a Fortune 500 company, and tell her she's been "downsized."

    Prices for leaders vary across the country, but you'll probably pay somewhere between one and two hundred dollars per meeting for a group of ten or so members. Some leaders will work on a meeting-to-meeting basis, but many will want a longer commitment of six to ten meetings so they can take advantage of the natural synergy that will be part of a successful group.

    Finding a leader to follow

    As with so many things related to books, word-of-mouth remains one of the best ways to find a leader. Talk to people you know who are in a reading group. Talk to your local librarian and bookstore owner. Call a community college in your area and ask to speak to someone in the English department -- many part-time college professors make great book group leaders. Call ABGRL (see resource section below) to see if any leaders from your area have registered.

    One final note: you may find the workplace is not only a good place to recruit book group members, but also a great place for a leadered group to meet. Some companies will even help pay for a leader for a group that meets during lunch hour in the cafeteria or a conference room. Talk to someone in your human resources department, if you think this is a route you'd like to travel.

    2. Groups Sponsored by a Library or a Bookstore

    If you're not sure you want to make a financial commitment to a book group, but you like the idea of having a leader of sorts, your library or bookstore may be the answer for you.

    Finally, something for nothing

    Library-sponsored book groups are, by nature, open to anybody who shows up. It's part philosophy, part law -- your tax dollars fuel the library, the doors must be open to you. Bookstore-sponsored groups typically have the same philosophy, though in this case it's good business sense not your tax dollars that props the door open.

    These groups are a blessing for anybody who's unsure about committing. Their open-door policy gives you the option of trying a book group on for size. There's no pressure -- you haven't paid a leader, you're not sitting in somebody's living room, feeling guilty about eating her chocolate chip cookies when you're not certain you'll ever return. If you don't like what you see and hear, you don't have to call and make excuses.

    Look at what these bookstores and libraries are doing
    Chances are, you will like it. In urban and suburban communities across the country -- book groups are thriving in these settings. For instance, look at these programs sponsored by bookstores and libraries.

  • Barnes & Noble, Evanston, Illinois
    This particular store assumes the financial responsibility of hiring a professional leader who runs a monthly weekday evening meeting with vigor. The meetings are open to anyone who wants to stop by and are typically well-attended. The store manager works with the leader to choose the reading list, both striving to lead readers off the path of bestsellers and on to provocative titles they may not have heard about.

  • Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore, Los Angeles
    Book group consultant Diane Leslie has come up with a twist on standard book group format: box suppers with an author. Once every month or so (depending on which authors are scheduled to be at Dutton's for readings and signings), she invites an author to join the store-sponsored reading group for supper. This meeting takes place after the group has met for an hour and discussed the author's work. You might think it sounds like a writer's nightmare (potentially angry mob armed with food), but Leslie has had no problem finding courageous writers to accept her invitation. Guests have included Alice Adams, Alan Lightman, Ron Hansen, and Jane Smiley.

  • Northeast Regional Library, Philadelphia
    Librarians here run a tight ship that includes an afternoon and evening book discussion group. The program is planned well in advance to insure that books are available to all participating patrons through interlibrary loan. Reading lists are often planned around a theme and, besides fiction, include drama, nonfiction, and poetry.

  • Bettendorf Public Library, Bettendorf, Iowa
    This book discussion group began in 1961 and has never stopped to take a breath. Librarian Hedy N.R. Hustedde, who has coordinated the group since 1989 says that once the monthly Wednesday evening meeting is over, "Discussions have been known to continue out in the parking lot or at a local restaurant." Choosing books is a group effort here, with a volunteer committee scouring bookstores and book reviews, and asking for recommendations.


    These examples highlight just a few of the particular benefits of truly free and thriving bookstore and library groups. In addition, store-sponsored groups often receive a discount for books purchased for the meeting, and library staff use the interlibrary loan system to insure that copies of book group titles are available to group participants.


    3. Plain and Simple Living Room Groups

    The backbone of the reading group network that tentacles across the country is the thousands of groups that meet monthly in living rooms. These groups often start out tentatively and evolve into confident, forthright, and sometimes contentious, meetings of the minds.

    Commitment is key

    These informal, leaderless groups can be a contradiction in terms. Typically they consist of six to ten members. Yes, they may be able to schedule around members' other commitments. But once scheduled they need a quorum to have a successful meeting. There's no last-minute, walk-in foot traffic here.

    Yes, because they have no official leader, every member can be involved in leading the discussion and book selection. Of course, there's a fine line between leading and not letting anybody else get a word in edgewise.

    Yes, food and wine may be de rigueur. But let's get back to the book now.

    A tender trap

    Angst-ridden authors wondering why they should continue the struggle to write, should visit a book group. These people inspire with the delicate work they do. For while it's no chore to read literature, when you go to your monthly book group, there's a good chance you'll bare at least a part of your soul. And the small groups that meet in living rooms often, more than other variations on the book group theme, elicit truths seductively, lulling members with potential friendship, comfortable chairs, good food, coffee, wine, herbal tea. Be careful it's a trap. Don't worry -- it's a tender one.


    How to Join a Group

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    Again, joining a library or bookstore sponsored group may be as easy as walking through the door of the branch closest to home. But if you've decided that a smaller, informal, more personal group is the ticket for you, you either have to find an established group that will welcome you or start your own group.


    Joining an Established Group

    A good first step is to check the library and bookstore bulletin boards for flyers about existing groups that are looking for new members. Some groups use these to actively recruit and keep their discussion fresh and flowing. Check for notices in your local alternative newspaper also. And don't forget word-of-mouth. Ask everybody you see -- work colleagues, people at your fitness club, parents at the daycare center. Ask people you don't see -- check here on BDD Online at our bulletin board.

    Once you do wrangle an invitation to an established group, be on your best behavior. Don't monopolize the conversation. Do read the book. Show up on time. Stay on subject -- is your baby's teething really analogous to Huck's ride down the river? Sorry, nobody else thinks so.


    A Group of One's Own

    Apologies to Woolf above and now Bellow -- seize the day. Start your own group. You don't need fine china, white linen, and twelve ladies. You only need a book and somebody to talk to.

    Successful groups come in all sizes, though a minimum of four members may be key. But if you need to make a start by meeting a friend for coffee and the sole purpose of discussing a book, do it. Another beautiful thing about books groups -- no charter rules in fine print.

    If you want a group that's a little larger, again, you have to put the word out -- at the water cooler at work, here online, at the grocery store notice board. If you're uneasy about inviting a bunch of strangers into your home, and you should be, meet at a coffeehouse or a restaurant until you get to know the people who answer your call.

    Remember, you can start a group to explore any type of book that interests you. Maybe you want to read only science fiction, feminist authors, nonfiction, or gardening books. Sure, the more specific the reading, the tougher it may be to put together a group, but give it a try, other aficionados are sure to be lurking.


    Basic rules to get started

    Whatever the subject matter, the first time you get together, decide on a few simple guidelines. Here are some basics:

    1. The group will meet once a month at a specified time and place, for a specified amount of time (two-three hours is typical). The host of the month might send postcard reminders to all members a week or so before the meeting.

    2. The group will rotate leadership. That is, one person each month will be responsible for doing a bit of background research on the author and the book's critical reception, and come prepared with a few questions to jumpstart the discussion should it flag.

    3. Books will be chosen by consensus or on a rotating basis. No one person will set the reading agenda.

    Once your group has been meeting for a few months, check your basic rules and see if they need fine-tuning. One more suggestion: do not read a book about god, sex, or race for your first meeting. Tackle these juicy topics after you've coalesced.


    Watch for These Common Pitfalls

    Whether you've joined an established group or started a group of your own, you'll sometimes run into problems. Some of the more common ones with ideas on how to solve them are outlined below.

    Who invited her?

    Some people don't get groups -- they talk too much, they insult others, or they sit like stones. This is one of the toughest problems groups face. It requires a level of fortitude and diplomacy worthy of the state department. But if your group is home to someone who monopolizes the discussion, or insists that his interpretation of the book is the only one possible, or never reads the book but expects everyone to listen to her lengthy opinion of it, then you have to confront the problem. Otherwise, your group will die a slow death.

    When you notice the problem (typically these offenders announce themselves early and often), suggest that the group spend a few minutes discussing rules of behavior. This should be the kindergarten-basics that Fulghum wrote about -- be kind, listen, take turns, share. This pointed discussion may cure the offender. Give it a meeting or two to see if it takes.

    If it doesn't, directly approach the person and suggest that he or she needs to change to continue to be part of the group. Be specific. Tell her what she's done; remind him of his crimes. This won't be easy. But if you don't do it, every month another valuable member will stay away and before long it will be only you, the book, and the offending personality. And that's not a book group -- that's a sentence.


    We've been meeting for a while now and we're bored...

    A few simple things can breathe life back into your group.

  • You may need new blood. Invite somebody to join the group. The first time this person shows up, everyone will be at his or her scintillating best -- it's human nature.

  • Ask every member to rate the book before the discussion starts, and then again after you've talked about it for an hour or so. Who changed her mind? Why?

  • Read the book and, as a group, see the movie. Then you can complain together about how Hollywood ruined it.

  • Change venue. If you usually meet in somebody's living room, meet at a coffeehouse or a tavern or in the park.


    If none of these does the trick, you may have a more serious problem. You may not be making good book choices.

    There's really nothing to talk about

    If the books you read aren't eliciting lively discussion (whether it's agreement or disagreement) you need to do better. These book choosing tactics should help.

  • Involve everyone. When one or two people monopolize the process, others are either avoiding responsibility or harboring resentment. You can choose books on a rotating basis or by a straight or weighted vote, but it's essential that all members are vested in the process.

  • Read on a theme. Choose homelessness, the media, education, Kennedy assassination theories -- you name it -- you'll find good books about it. For a change, ask everybody to read a different book on the subject. Share your findings.

  • Suggest members read one or both of two books that are related somehow. For instance, The Handmaid's Tale and 1984, or Map of the World and The Good Mother. This is less of a burden than you might think and sets up automatic comparisons and contrasts between the work that different writers do.

  • Choose an author who has a large body of work, say Margaret Atwood. Everybody read a different Atwood novel. Talk about her early work vs. her more recent in regard to theme, character development, and plot.

  • If your group typically reads fiction, read nonfiction, or vice versa. Or read poetry. Choose a poet and read his or her work aloud during your meeting.

  • Choose a tough book, one your group has been avoiding as just too hard or too heavy to carry while commuting. Dissect the book into small, easier-to-swallow portions, assigning a chapter or two to each member.


    And just how does one dig up these provocative titles?

    By now, you've worn a path to your local library and bookstore, so follow it again and ask the staff for recommendations. Browse. Read first pages. It's really not a matter of digging. If you merely scratch, you'll find yourself surrounded.

    Read the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the Voice Literary Supplement. Also, the resource section below lists books and newsletters that were written with book groups in mind and contain reading suggestions.


    Resources

    (Back to Table of Contents)

    If you like to read and then talk about what you read, you're probably resourceful, curious, intelligent, and ingenious -- well able to take the steps suggested above to find or start a group. But maybe you crave institutional order or maybe you've just moved to a new city and you're exhausted and at your wits end as to how to start to meet people who want to talk about books with you.

    If that's the case, plenty of dedicated writers and readers have done some legwork for you. The resources listed below will help you plan your route toward a book group that feels like home.

    Organizations

    American Association of University Women (AAUW). This organization stays with college-educated women for life. Many local chapters of AAUW sponsor informal book groups that welcome new members at any time. Contact the main office for information on your local chapter.

    AAUW
    1111 16th St., NW
    Washington, DC 20036
    (202) 785-7700

    Association of Book Group Readers and Leaders (ABGRL). Professional book group leader Rachel Jacobsohn founded this group in 1994. It strives to connect "individual readers and book group participants searching for stimulus and direction." Publishes a newsletter (three times yearly) that offers reading suggestions and other book group news.

    ABGRL
    P.O. Box 885
    Highland Park, IL 60035
    (847) 266-0431

    Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC). The oldest continuous reading club in America. Founded in 1878, its primary objective remains the same today: never ending education and stimulation of organized lifelong learning and mutual encouragement for men and women of all ages and classes. Contact CLSC for information on its reading circles.

    CLSC
    Chautauqua, NY 14722
    (716) 357-6200

    Great Books Foundation. Cofounded in 1947 by Dr. Mortimer J. Adler, the Foundation provides a program of reading for adults who want to improve their understanding of fundamental ideas and their skills in the liberal arts of reading, speaking, and listening. The Foundation matches members by zip code so that groups can meet conveniently.

    Great Books Foundation
    35 E. Wacker Dr.
    Chicago, IL 60601
    (312) 332-5870


    Publications

    Books

    A few years ago everybody, publishers included, seemed to wake up and notice book groups. Long-time book group members may shake their heads at the sudden spotlight (after all they've been doing their quiet work for ten, twenty, thirty years), but no doubt they'll also find pleasure and useful information in the books that have been written for and about them. A few of these are noted below.

    The Book Group Book: A Thoughtful Guide to Forming and Enjoying a Stimulating Book Discussion Group, 2nd edition, Ellen Slezak, ed., Chicago Review Press, 1996. -- This collection of essays written by book group members across the country gives an intimate, insider look at how different groups work. Includes a section of reading lists containing more than two thousand titles from thriving groups. Foreword by Margaret Atwood.

    Read All Your Life: A Subject Guide to Fiction, Barbara Kerr Davis, McFarland & Company, Inc., 1989. -- Offers reading suggestions, short excerpts from novels, and discussion questions based on subject areas including self, family, society and politics, religion, and philosophy.

    The Reading Group Handbook: Everything You Need to Know from Choosing Members to Leading Discussions, Rachel W. Jacobsohn, Hyperion, 1994. -- The author, a professional book group leader and founder of ABGRL, shares tips on format, fees, reading lists, and food.

    What to Read: An Essential Guide for Reading Group Members and Other Book Lovers, Mickey Pearlman, Ph.D., HarperCollins, 1994. -- Designed for reading group members who need ideas on what to read and book lovers who want to know about contemporary and classic books they may have missed. Contains thirty-three annotated reading lists.

    Newsletters

    Plenty of bookstores publish monthly newsletters that are jammed with useful information for book groups. These are typically free -- get on your store's mailing list. Other newsletters, like those listed below, are available on a subscription basis -- your group may find it's worth the minimal investment.

    Between the Lines, Box 88, Fairview, NC 28730 (704-628-9750; SuperBooks@aol.com)--This is a 12-page gazette, published quarterly, aimed at discriminating readers. The gazette covers 80-100 books annually. It tells its readers what's good and why, in fiction, biography and history. Editors of the gazette ferret out this quality writing by a variety of methods, such as canvassing very knowledgeable booksellers for their picks, and using ideas presented by the gazette's own subscribers. Subscribers may even write up their ideas, for which they may be compensated. The gazette's aim is simple: put out a well-written, dependable guide for personal reading enjoyment, while also serving as a first-rate resource for discussion groups. Send for a free copy.

    Ex Libris, 33 Chandler St., Newton, MA, 02158-1106. -- A lively, bimonthly newsletter that contains reading lists, book group profiles, and more.

    Select Fiction, P.O. Box 1069, Sharon, CT, 06069. -- Bills itself, accurately, as "a selective guide to well-received new fiction that did not hit the New York Times bestseller list -- and possibly passed out of view too quickly to catch the eye of readers looking for good new novels and short stories, serious and otherwise."


    Doubleday Reader's Companions

    Obviously, there's no shortage of fine fiction and nonfiction on the bookstore and library shelves -- and Bantam Doubleday Dell is publishing more than its share of this. Readers combing our catalog will find hundreds of provocative, entertaining, thoughtful, and just plain good books to challenge and delight them.

    To make things even easier for book groups, we've published a number of Reader's Companions that are geared specifically to enhance the work that groups do.

    The companions don't fit into any set formula, though they all contain suggested questions for your discussion of the book, and background information about the author. Instead, they try to suggest hidden currents that may have influenced the author, or they may present source material that the author used in writing his or her work. We've heard from book group members that our companions add to the work that groups do, suggesting angles of interest in any given title that may just be the tinder for an exceptional book group meeting. You know, the one where Sarah and Jonas squared off for an argument about the theme of isolation, and Lisa offered an elegant paean to the precision of the author's metaphors.

    We've published companions for books that we feel are perfect book group fits. The companions are free and available at your bookstore, or you can call the Doubleday Marketing Hotline at 1-800-605-3406. In addition, the complete text of each is available here. Controversial, funny, moving -- these are some of the words that you'll probably use to describe your feelings about the books that are part of our Reader's Companion series. We hope your group gets hold of them.