The 4 Rules of a Book Group That Can Survive the Apocalypse
I started Book Club (we never came up with a zippier name) to solve two problems. The first had to do with books, period. For some time, I'd been reviewing nonfiction for The New York Times Book Review, and when other editors began asking me to write reviews too, I always said yes. I regarded it as a privilege to be asked to write anything under my own name, and I still do—an attitude that my landlord appreciates, the first of every month. As stimulating as it was to tackle these assignments, and as much as I enjoyed discovering new authors and tussling with thought-provoking ideas, my leisure time was increasingly swallowed by books I found more enjoyable to write about than to read.
The reading trances I remembered from my teens and younger years—when I would lose track of hours and days, utterly caught up in Charlotte Brontë, stumbling through my paper route, reading Stendhal's The Red and the Black—had vanished. Now, I found myself racing toward the finish line, longing for the book to end. The reason for this, I saw, was that I was primarily reading not because I wanted to, but because I had to.
This was an unwelcome feeling. Books are my home, the place where I feel known. When I was 5 years old, my mother typed up a reading list for me of books she thought I would like, suggesting one classic a week, starting with Laura Ingalls Wilder, E. Nesbit, Johann David Wyss and Robert Louis Stevenson, and gradually advancing to Austen, Dickens, Gogol, Flaubert, Orwell, Hemingway, Naipaul and even Thor Heyerdahl (Kon-Tiki, his account of the perilous ocean voyage he made on a balsa wood raft to test the theory of ancient continental migration). Week after week, year after year, I leaped to read each title without question. Later, she made similar lists for my little brothers, but they just shrugged and went off to play Little League. Eventually, I ventured beyond the list, raiding my parents' shelves for books by John Irving, Anne Tyler, Tom Robbins, John Updike, P.G. Wodehouse, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy (my father was a Russian literature professor). When I think back to my girlhood, I remember the lyric by the songwriter Melanie, whose records my mother played: Wish I could find a good book to live in. I lived in so many good books that I felt like a citizen of numberless fictional nations. How awful it was, then, to realize that although I sometimes lucked out and got to review a book I loved, I mostly felt like the captive of a single literary country: a police state called Required Reading.
There was a second problem I needed Book Club to fix too. As so many times before, I found myself emerging from a long relationship that had ended painfully. My boyfriend had been possessive (as had I); during our two years together, my social sphere had narrowed. I felt lonely after the breakup not only because of the loss of the man but also because I had let my close, interconnected circle of woman friends melt away. I realized a woman who doesn't have female friends is a woman who doesn't have friends. Whenever I was single, I would promise myself that the next time I found a boyfriend, I wouldn't let love shunt friendships to the side. Meeting someone new, I'd inevitably forget. (Would I never learn?) I yearned to repopulate my world. But the women I knew were incredibly busy. Some of us were single, some were engaged, some had husbands, some had babies, and time was precious—much more than it had been just a few years earlier. It was getting increasingly hard to grab a quick coffee or drink (repeatedly postponed) with a friend. The thing to do, I thought, was to invent an excuse that would allow a group of us to gather regularly. We would choose a book to read and fix a time on our calendars that we could look forward to and plan around. Not everyone would make every meeting (except me), but over time, as we talked about literature, we would become recurring characters in each other's lives, part of the same story.
Reader, it worked. Inspired by the parties I remembered my mother regularly hosting for the clever, sparkling people she knew (and their husbands), I invited half a dozen friends to the first Book Club gathering. The pattern was set that we have followed ever since: One member is the host and serves a light meal, often themed to the book we have read. Then, during the first hour, as members straggle in, we catch up. Once we have a quorum, we sit down to eat and, for an hour, discuss the book. Generally, we are exhilarated both by our discussion, including our disagreements (it almost never happens that we all like the book; I think The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, is the only one of the scores of books we've read that met with unanimous approval). At the end, we decide which book to read next, many of us chipping in with ideas (usually I suggest Balzac's Cousin Bette, and everyone refuses it; or someone suggests Henry James, and I pretend to consider it). Once we've thinned the list, we have a vote. Now, we have 24 members (who have been joined, along the way, by 30 children) and a dozen-odd satellite members whom fate capriciously removed from Book Club, New York City, and in some cases, North America—but who remain part of our indestructible friendship.
Really, I'm amazed we've kept Book Club going so long. Many times, a snafu arose that I thought would sink us, but it never did. There was the time when I overambitiously assigned the 1,000-page novel The Brothers Karamazov, which I wanted to revisit, having last read it at 14. As the hostess, my friend Sarah, began serving borscht and Russian food, one after the other of us guiltily confessed we hadn't actually managed to read it. Only one guest, a brand new member, had finished it. Another time, trying to be serious-minded after we had spoiled ourselves with a spate of novels, we picked a Pulitzer Prize–winning nonfiction book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. After 10 minutes of awkward discussion, mined with long pauses, it turned out we had nothing to say but, "Yep, that's definitely a persuasive argument."
These and other near disasters have taught me four crucial rules of a book group that can survive the apocalypse. The first is never choose a book unless at least one person in the club has already read it. When a group of people carve out the time to explore a book together, they want to be sure it deserves their attention and will generate lots of discussion. Not every member might like the choice—disagreements and controversial picks make conversation sing...and sometimes bracingly sting—but there's no fun in a pile-on. To avoid picking a punching bag of a book, make sure it has at least one defender before you enter it in the bout.
The second rule seems obvious, but I can't tell you how long it took us to learn it: Try not to assign a book over 400 pages. Do you remember Laura Ingalls Wilder's teaching stint in These Happy Golden Years, when her pupils balked at their homework because they thought there was too much of it? She solved the problem by reducing the number of pages they had to read. "How many do you think you can learn?" she asked one foot-dragger. "Would three be too much?" she asked. "No," he said. Eventually, he himself volunteered to tackle more pages. To head off mutiny in your book club, consider the page count. Even if you have a month before your next meeting, your readers probably won't open the book until a week or two beforehand (with luck). Divided into manageable chunks—50 pages a day—they can read a 400-page book in eight days and not feel overwhelmed. That said, your members may clamor to read a much-talked-about longer book, like The Goldfinch or (during the Bernie Madoff crisis) Trollope's novel about a British Ponzi scheme, The Way We Live Now. If they're motivated, they will read a doorstop! (But make the next book a short one.)
The third rule is key: Don't freak out about the food. It's Book Club, not Gourmet Club. And finally, the simplest but most important rule: Be flexible but tenacious in scheduling. Change the date, the venue or even the book to accommodate your members. For instance, our group used to meet on Sundays; but when turnout dropped as more of us became parents and needed weekends for home time, we shifted to Mondays. And once, after several members admitted they were daunted by the selection The Magic Mountain, we switched midmonth to a slimmer book, Leaving the Atocha Station, to keep attendance from faltering. Another time, when a host had to cancel, day of, a fellow member leapt in and offered her place instead. And respect the calendar—not even a Nobel winner can draw a quorum to your coffee table during the Thanksgiving-Hanukkah-Christmas marathon.
Will these rules work for you? I can't guarantee it, but they have for us. More than 100 books later, after house fires, hurricanes, blizzards and blackouts, national emergencies, family emergencies and three sets of twins—our Book Club sails on, reading against the wind.
Liesl Schillinger is the author of Wordbirds: An Irreverent Lexicon for the 21st Century.