Writers have a tendency to become homebodies, to embrace solitude and focus on writing and reading alone. Reading is, of course, a solitary act; a subjective journey that we take on our own and into ourselves. Reading isolates you from others: you carry the experience of the book within you, but who can you tell? Who will understand?
Reading alone is not only lonely but makes for a narrow-minded view of literature, which is no good if you want to be a successful writer. Writers must read widely and read often, as we’re always told. We need to find new resources, read reviews, take recommendations. Writers must also learn how to pick apart the books they read, to challenge themselves, to see the stories from new perspectives. We need to add a social element to the solitary art of reading.
Maybe we’re shy; maybe we don’t know where to meet other readers like ourselves; maybe we don’t have time for a social life. That’s why you should start (or join) a book club.
Why start one when you could join one?
At the beginning of the year, in that liminal space between old and new, spurred on by talk of New Year’s Resolutions and new experiences, I started a book club. I’d been conscious of becoming more withdrawn and wanted to kickstart my social life again, and what better way to do it than talk about reading (and writing)?
I knew of a few relevant groups but couldn’t bring myself to squeeze into them without knowing anybody. I searched online for local book clubs and found that they were all for casual readers rather than literary or writerly readers, who need to rip texts apart and learn things from them. I also found that a lot of book clubs were held on weekdays or at times I couldn’t fit into my schedule.
There wasn’t anywhere that I felt, as a writer, I could fit in as a reader. There’s no better way to find what you want (and need) than to create it for yourself, and the great thing about starting a book club is that you have freedom to make it exactly what you want it to be.
Decide what you want from it
When I was on the search for a book club I knew what sort of group I would fit into best. I needed like-minded people; people who were not only readers but also writers; people that would understand what I knew but would also expand my knowledge.
To start a book club you need to have direction, and that means knowing what you want the group to be and what you want to get back from it. If you want to explore new writing, start a group that reads only contemporary books and if you want to fangirl over fantasy then focus your group on genre writing.
You can focus your book club on just about anything:
- Genre (sci-fi and fantasy, realism and literature, poetry)
- Gender and Age (male, female, young, old)
- Author (reading the entire works of a single beloved writer)
- Publication date (ancient, classic, contemporary)
- Publication country (American writing, African Diaspora, British Isles)
- Or don’t specify at all and see where it takes you!
Whatever parameters you choose for the reading, also consider certain ‘rules’ for the meetings themselves. Think about possible locations for meetings (local cafes, people’s homes, or purely online?), whether you want mixed genders or a more ‘girls’ night’ or ‘mates’ date’ kind of vibe, and whether you want group members to be super strict with their readings (comprehensive notes necessary) or more casual (haven’t read the whole book? No worries!).
Establishing the expectations for your group early on avoids disagreements, disappointments, and dodgy decision-making. When everyone knows what they’re in for, everyone’s more likely to join for the right reasons and have a great time.
Getting people together
So you’ve got the concept of your book club settled but you’ve got nobody to attend the actual meetings. Depending on whether you want to catch up with new people or friends you already know, your methods of spreading the word about your new group might vary.
A simple post on social media asking for interested parties might be just the thing you need to get a group together.
If you don’t want to throw your net wide open you can tell a few friends, ask them to invite a friend each, and all of a sudden you have a mix of old and new buddies!
Starting afresh? Try starting a group online through a site like Meetup, posting flyers in cafes and bookstores, or talking to local libraries (or universities, or writing centres) about advertising through their channels.
The way you get your group together depends on how many readers you’re expecting to bring together and how comfortable you are with meeting new people. I’m more on the socially awkward side so I posted through Facebook, got a small group of four together, then expanded with friends-of-friends. The important thing to remember is that not everybody will be available for every meeting, so aiming high can sometimes leave you with just the right number.
How to keep organised
It’s not enough to just start a group and get people together. You need to have excellent communication from month to month (or week to week, or whenever your meetings are planned for!). There will be a lot of decisions to make and confirm with everyone in the group, like what the book is, where you’ll meet up, and who can make it on the day.
Facebook groups are ideal for this because everyone can easily comment and make friends fast with a few clicks (on a site you’re no doubt already familiar with). Other apps like Whatsapp are also great for the tech savvy and for reaching out to members who might not have Facebook (yes, they exist!). Swap emails and phone numbers – you never know when they might come in handy.
The best advice I can give is to plan far ahead in time, like a whole month ahead. At the end of your meeting start discussing the next one, and then get in contact with everyone and let them know the details while they’re still buzzing from the fun times they just had.
What I’ve learned from my book club
As someone who ‘runs’ (or at least, is part of) a book club, and has been doing so for a solid eight or nine months now, there are a few things I’ve learned along the way (in addition to all of the above):
- Come up with questions and topics – this helps to get the conversation going and helps you to think about the chosen book in new analytic ways (which in turn improves your writing!)
- Be democratic – make sure everyone discusses the book choice and that everyone gets a say, especially if some members are more quiet than others
- Get feedback – you want people to have a good time, so find out what’s working and what’s not and tweak your meetings to the best they can be
- Expand your horizons – other people in your group have fantastic ideas, and the whole point of book club is to swap reading experiences; listen to people’s recommendations, try new things, read from new perspectives
Starting a book club was easily one of the brighter initiatives I’ve had this year. I’ve reconnected with old friends, met new people, read (and loved) books I’d never think to pick up. We’ve had deep conversations about feminism and the authority of the writer and we’ve had excited chats about new TV shows and Harry Potter.
Book club became more than just a monthly meeting; all I had to do was put myself out there, without fear of rejection or disappointment, and I’m so glad that I finally did.