What I’ve Learned From Starting My Own Book Group

Some of my book group’s past and future book selections.

In March 2013 I held the first meeting of my book discussion group. I’ve enjoyed the monthly meetings so much over the past year that I encourage everyone to either join a group or start your own. Here are some things I’ve learned from starting my own:

1. It’s good to have a mix of people you know really well and those you don’t know very well (or at all). – When I started my book group I put a general invitation on Facebook inviting friends and acquaintances to join me for monthly meetings. Several good friends responded, which was expected, but I also had a couple of people who I didn’t know quite as well express interest. And then one of my friends asked if she could bring a friend of hers who was totally unknown to me and our group was born. The mix of different perspectives and backgrounds is invigorating and through the discussions I’ve gotten to know people so much better. I’m glad that we have a diverse circle of women.

2. A book group needs a leader. – My original vision for the book group was for us all to take turns choosing books and leading the discussions, but I quickly learned that the members looked to me for direction and organization. I’ve seen this with the book groups at the library as well. There always needs to be that one person who takes charge and if you’ve started the book group that person is probably going to be you.

3. Most people attend for the conversation and company – not for the book. – Yes, it is a book group, but it’s also a social outlet and escape (especially for the busy moms). Don’t be too adamant about sticking to literary talk. Let people tell stories, vent and share their lives. Sometimes the personal conversation is more interesting than the book discussion! The book is a starting point for connection and community and is a tool for sparking important and stimulating discussion that sometimes leaps beyond the pages – and that is wonderful.

4. Decide how you want the group to be organized from the beginning – but it’s okay to change things along the way. – As I mentioned above my original intent was for the members of the group to take turns choosing books and leading the discussion, but after a while I could tell this approach wasn’t working. I then compiled a list of books and we took a vote on what to read, but sometimes there was disagreement that delayed the decision. A few months ago I picked books for the rest of the year so that we can spend the majority of the meeting discussing the book and chatting and not arguing over what to read for the next month. If you lead the group you can decide what direction the book selection and discussions take to make it a better experience for all.

5. Don’t get discouraged if attendance wanes. There have been several months when only one or two people are able to attend the meeting. In January I got very discouraged after several months of low attendance and was on the verge of disbanding. The very next meeting, however, everyone attended and I realized that people have lives and there’s no need to fret. You can still have a really good discussion with just three people – and there’ll be more cookies to go around.

6. It’s okay if not everyone who attends has read the book or even if no one has read the book. – For our April discussion only one out of five of us had read the book! We had that one person give us a book report and then moved on to discussing life and kids and work. It was still a great meeting and the book wasn’t neglected…just slightly ignored.

7. Be thoughtful about selecting books, but don’t stress about it too much. – In the beginning I agonized over picking just the right books for discussion. Then I realized (as discussed above) that the book was not as important as I thought it was. The book is not the star, just a very valuable supporting player. However, I do take into account everyone’s tastes and dislikes and try not to pick books that I know someone will hate or object to. I also choose books that are out of my range of interests; otherwise we’d read Barbara Pym, Willa Cather or E.M. Forster every month and no one (except me) would be happy.

8. Treats aren’t as important as I thought they would be. – I’ve made desserts from scratch and bought them at the store and have learned that it doesn’t matter either way. People like sugar yet sometimes no one eats the dessert at all. There’s no need to slave over a layer cake every month or spend tons of money at the local bakery – unless you want to.

9. Be flexible and casual. If someone wants to come in their pajamas or is half an hour late they are welcome. The majority of the meetings are at my house and I want people to feel comfortable. I believe a relaxed environment leads to better discussions.

These are my observations, but I know every book group is different. If you belong to one, I’d love to hear what you’ve learned and how yours is organized.

What would you add to the list?

18 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned From Starting My Own Book Group

  1. These are great tips, and it looks like you’ve read some great books too, from your photo. I’ve never actually joined in a book group and I’m not sure it would be my thing. However, if I was to attend one, I would much rather it be a laid back socialising kind of one.


    1. I think you have to find just the right book group to enjoy the experience. I’ve been in book groups previous to starting my own and it wasn’t my favorite thing. I think I found just the right mix of people this time. And I love that it is laid back!


  2. I’ve never experienced a book group but it sounds like you’ve struck the perfect balance with yours. I wish I could join in!


  3. Great tips! My best friend and I started a book club a few months ago and it also includes my twin sister and my friend’s roommate, who I barely knew when we started the club. We’re all thick and thieves now. We’re hoping to start adding more people into book club so your tips are very handy 🙂


  4. I’ve belonged to several book groups, mostly through the libraries where I’ve worked. I think your comments are spot-on — we often have months with low attendance, or when few people have finished the group. I had one month when everyone hated the book and some people later told me that discouraged them from coming, which was too bad — sometimes it’s more interesting when everyone dislikes it! It can be boring when everyone just loves it.


    1. We did have one month where no one finished the book and everyone hated what they did read of it (it was Reading Lolita in Tehran). That made for a good discussion because it was interesting to dissect the reasons none of us liked it. Thankfully, we usually have a good mix of love/hate.


  5. I’ve never been involved in starting a book group. The two I’ve joined were already well-established when I was invited to join. I think these are great guidelines! I’d add that it’s good to decide if you’re going to be non-partisan/non-political. Both my groups are people who belong to the same churches (roughly) – so we do discuss religion sometimes but we steer away from politics. (Actually the leader of one group only wanted to read religious-themed books, and we have moved away from that, happily for me at least.)


    1. This is a great point, Lisa! Most of the people in my group belong to the same church, but I’ve subtly outlawed any references to spiritual beliefs as there are several members who aren’t comfortable with that theme and I really don’t want it to turn into a church book group. So far we haven’t really touched on politics, except for very briefly, but I’m sure we’ll have to address that at some time.


  6. Excellent post! All these tips are very practical. The one problem with my group is that there is no clear leader and nobody seems to want to take on the role. One member acts as a secretary of sorts – sending out email meeting announcements and reminders – and they seem to look toward me for title selections, but nobody really leads the discussion.


    1. Thanks! I’ve noticed that if I don’t take charge of the discussions the conversation goes wacky – I think it’s imperative to have that one person who keeps the discussion on track.


  7. I’ve never been in a book group so the list was a lot longer than I would’ve thought possible, there’s seems so much to consider! Oh thinking about it, a leader does sound very important otherwise, as you’ve said, it takes a while to get somewhere. In your case you know a lot about books from reading, your blog and your job so I suppose it’s natural they looked to you. I’m glad it’s still going well and that you haven’t had to abandon the idea 🙂


    1. I’m also glad I haven’t had to abandon it. It’s something I look forward to every month and I love hearing the different opinions and thoughts on the books we read. There is a lot to consider to make a book group successful!


  8. Great advice! I’ll add that one thing that worked brilliantly for my old book group was to switch out who gets to choose the next book to read. Our rule was that whoever hated the most recent book club book gets to choose next; that person would send a list of three possible books, and everyone would vote. That way, no one person had to feel solely responsible if a book turned out to be unpopular, and it also helped make sure that nobody was hating book after book after book with no recourse.


    1. We did something similar to that for the first year and it didn’t really work for our dynamic. There was too much argument and wishy-washiness so I had to take control of the selection, but I think it is a great idea. I’d like to try to taking turns again next year. I did get some input from a few of the members who can be neutral about it!


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