Running a club
by Dymphna Flynn and Peter Guttridge
How to get started
It can be hard to make contact with book groups, as they are normally set up by word of mouth.
Try to find a group of like minded individuals, asking around family, friends, friends of friends and colleagues, to see if anyone knows of a group who'd welcome a new member, or if anyone would like to join a new one. Or ask your local library if they have spaces in their reading groups, also try your local book shop.
The Reading Agency's Reading Groups for Everyone is a network of bookgroups from across the UK, with information on setting up and running book groups. You can find a book group to join on the site, or find out how to add your group to their growing network.
Here’s ten steps to setting up your own book group.
- The ideal number is about eight – too few and it can be hard to get a discussion started. Also, if a couple of members don’t show, you can still go ahead. Too many and shyer people may not get heard.
- Monthly meetings work well because it gives everyone a chance to get hold of the book, or find it in the library, and to read it, no matter how slow a reader.
- Try to find a quiet place to meet. Pubs without loud background noise, cafés and members’ homes work well.
- Letting each member of the group pick a book in turn means you should have the opportunity to read a wide range of authors and hopefully be introduced to some new ones.
- Make up of group: a mixture of age, experience, single, married, male to female will all add to the variety of the discussion.
- Choosing a book : go for titles in paperback (cheaper). Look for reviews in newspapers and magazines, try us - Radio 4’s Bookclub Archive (naturally); our sister programme Open Book, dare we mention the book group programme on Channel Four …Try past or present prize-winning novels (Man Booker, Costa etc)…and old favourites that you would like to re-read and share
- A reading group can be as relaxed or informal as you want it to be. For more formal groups a prepared list of questions about the book will keep the discussion moving forward. Check publishers’ websites as they often include readers’ guides to books. More informal groups may prefer to let the person who chose the book give their opinion first and take it from there.
- Taking down short notes on a postcard while reading the book helps enormously when it comes to later discussion. Or sticking post-it notes next to sections of the book that interest you as you read. Points to discuss could include: your emotional response to the book, characterisation, themes, most memorable parts (descriptions/dialogue), strengths and weaknesses
- Be aware of how you will manage cancellations/ change the book if it’s unavailable etc.
- Socialising together outside the book group can be rewarding too – seeing the film version of a book you’ve discussed or going to an author event.
Why a reading group?
Reading is a solitary activity but when a book has moved or stimulated you it's natural to want to discuss it with someone else. A reading group gives you that opportunity. Also, a group encourages you to think a bit more about the books you read - why you like some, hate others. Unless you're a critic, when you read a book you don't analyse it much. Critics read books in an entirely different way. A reading group is a halfway house between the two approaches, designed to enhance your reading pleasure. There are specialist reading groups around too - the crime bookshop Crime In Store in London runs a regular reading group for mystery books, other groups focus on, say, poetry, women writers or modern American fiction. The possibilities are as varied as fiction.
How do I set up a reading group?
Sheila Hewitt in Halifax, Yorkshire, took the opportunity of a college reunion three years ago in nearby Bradford to suggest to some old friends who live in the area they might get together every so often to discuss books. "Five of us started together but over time we've added another five - three of my neighbours, a work colleague of one of the others and a builder who did some work on the house and overheard one of the sessions!" If you don't have friends who are interested, try advertising in the local college, magazine, bookshop or library. See if one already exists in your area - try your library or local bookshop first. Many libraries and bookshops are involved with reading groups. Certainly libraries in the West Midlands and Leicester library actively promote them, producing suggested reading lists and having multiple copies of the books on the lists to lend to groups.
The Reading Agency's Reading Groups for Everyone has information on setting up and running book groups. You can find a book group to join on the site, or find out how to add your group to their growing network.
How many people should be in it?
Groups of between five and ten people seem to work best, otherwise it's not so easy to maintain an informal atmosphere, there are too many points of view to be heard and shyer people might feel uncomfortable having their say. People don't always attend every meeting of course. Sheila's group rarely has all ten people there at once. Unusually, her group is a mix of men and women - reading groups have tended to be female only.
Where do we hold our meetings?
Most groups meet in someone's home, often moving from home to home. But some take place in bookshops (like Crime In Store), colleges, libraries - even in pubs. The Britannia Arms in Boston, Lincolnshire set up a thriving reading group earlier this year. Postal and Internet reading groups don't have to worry about where they meet, of course. How often should we meet? And for how long? Once a month seems to work for most groups since it gives plenty of time to read even the most difficult book. A session will probably have run out of steam after two hours, although if the wine is flowing, the discussion could flow for longer too. Perhaps make sure you have somewhere set up for three hours.
How do we run the meeting?
"Along military lines!" says Marilyn Flynn, who has belonged to a reading group in Nottingham for two years. She's joking but her group do stay focused on the book under discussion (most recent book: Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks). "We're a big group - twelve of us usually - so it's tempting if you haven't yet had a chance to give your opinion to start talking to the people nearest to you. But we discourage that - it's important we respect whoever is speaking to the whole group. Even if they are blathering on, as we all do sometimes."
Marilyn's group - an all-female mix of teachers, secretaries, full-time mothers, a librarian, a banker and a fitness instructor - put aside fifteen minutes at the start of each meeting "to catch up on gossip". Then they focus on the book under discussion. "And when we've finished we go back to the gossip!"
Usually, members of a reading group take it in turn to nominate a book. The person who has nominated this month's book might then introduce it by saying why she chose it. If she can get the information (from Saturday and Sunday newspaper book sections perhaps) she might talk a little about the author. That same person might lead the discussion, perhaps by having prepared five or six points to raise (see below What Do We Talk About?).
"You have to be careful of other people's feelings in discussion," Marilyn says, "especially if you hate a book that means a lot to the person who chose it. I persuaded everybody to 'go back in time' and read Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, which I loved when I read it as a student and which has a special place in my heart. A couple of people really tore into it, especially the first book Justine, for being pretentious. I was really upset!"
What do we talk about?
Start with your reaction to the book - did you love it, loathe it or remain indifferent to it? Why?
Then think about what the book is really about - its themes. Are the characters real for you? Who do you sympathise with? Is there a particularly memorable piece of writing or scene in the book? Does the book have a message? What does it tell you about the author? Does it remind you of anything else? Do you want to read more by the same author? If it's a prizewinner, did it deserve to be?
Discussion can often be even more stimulating if you disliked a book (though careful how you express it - see above). Did you lose interest in it? Why? The characters? The story itself? Too confusing - or too obvious? Too much or not enough description?
What Books Do We Choose?
Non-specialist reading groups tend to go for contemporary fiction with a smattering of modern and not-so-modern classics thrown in. Unless your library is one of those that has multiple copies of books for reading groups stick to paperbacks for reasons of economy. If you want to recommend a classic make sure it's still in print.
Get ideas for books from the various reading lists available in libraries and bookshops, from book reviews, prize lists, bestseller lists or simply by browsing in your local bookshop. You want something with a bit of meat on it - there's not much to be said about much run of the mill romances or crime novels or the latest bonkbusters, entertaining as they might be. And even the most pleasurable and successful comic novels don't bear the weight of much analysis.
Anne Durran, community literacy co-ordinator at Lincolnshire County Council, who has been advising The Britannia Arms about its reading group says: "Our reading lists are all modern paperbacks that have been recently made into films so they are easily recognisable." Choose a book that can be read within a month - Marilyn was pushing it a bit with The Alexandria Quartet.